Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Pondering Pumpkin

I've been too busy to write a blog post, so my wife, Beth, is helping me out by writing a blog post this week.
Hey everyone, it's Beth here taking over the blog today.  Nate's been swamped lately so I thought I'd help him out.  Let's discuss a fall favorite today.

It seems like as soon as the calendar hits September, you are bombarded with pumpkin everything.  Pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin breads, there is even pumpkin butter I have heard.  I am not a huge fan of pumpkin things, though I like good pumpkin bread, I don’t do the lattes or the pies.  I will make an exception for one pumpkin thing at this time of the year though and I look forward to and even crave it a bit.  Pumpkin beer.

It has to be done well.  There are a ton of pumpkin beer options out there.  Some of which I haven’t had the pleasure of trying, such as Dogfish Head’s famous Punkin Ale.  (Side note – hey Dogfish Head, come to Minnesota!)   Others I've tried and not liked all that much.  I feel the pumpkin flavor should not overpower the beer flavor.  You just want a hint of the spices, a little something that makes you say “yep, this tastes like fall.”

There are two beers I've had that I feel have done a good job on what I think is possibly a delicate balance.  Southern Tier’s Punking is one of my favorites.  It has a light pumpkin flavor without being over the top.  It reminds me more of pumpkin bread then pumpkin pie, which is also why I prefer it.  I don’t ever want more than about a glass worth of this one though but that is OK, it’s a good sipping beer.  It’s also a tough one to say you’re going to pair with much food – though I had this one on tap at a restaurant recently and ate some hop infused cheese curds (oh yes these exist, maybe we’ll do a post on these little wonders another time) while drinking it and they went surprisingly well together. 

The other one I just had this past weekend at our favorite local brewpub, Barley Johns in New Brighton, MN.  They made a pumpkin bock this year.  It was really the perfect pumpkin beer for my taste – it was mostly a bock, with a hint of pumpkin and spice.  It was very smooth and actually did pair well with the turkey wrap I had for dinner.  Unlike Southern Tier’s, I could have easily had another glass of this one.  Maybe the difference in the two is Southern Tier’s feels more like a dessert beer to me where this one could be the main course.

We have some friends that homebrew like us and they have made a Pumpkin beer this year that we've been promised a bottle of.  They have told me it will be more about the spices than the actual pumpkin as they agree with me that pumpkin flavor can be overdone.  I’m anxious to give it a try as it seems right up my alley.
Others may disagree with me and if you want pumpkin pie in a bottle, I am not going to judge you, just like I don’t judge lovers of the pumpkin spice latte, but for this girl, simple is better.  So I highly recommend Barley Johns Pumpkin Bock to the locals (get there soon before it’s all gone) and Southern Tier to the rest of you!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bottling vs. Kegging, and the Party Pig

I missed posting last week, but with good reason.  Beth and I threw our yearly Oktoberfest bash this last weekend, so I'd been a bit busy preparing for the party to get a post up.

Preparing for the party has brought a topic to mind that I've been thinking about posting for a while though, so here we go.

Bottling vs. Kegging
Almost all new homebrewers start out by bottling their beer.  It's inexpensive to do, and requires very little skill to do properly, and if you do screw something up, it'll only be a few bottles at most, so you'll have the majority of the batch of beer that's still drinkable.

To get into bottling, you need a wing capper like this one, a bottling bucket,  a bottling wand, bottle caps and a bunch of bottles.  You can get the bottles for free by either drinking beer, getting your friends to drink beer, or picking them up off Craigslist.  For only about $40, you've got the equipment you need to start bottling.  If you need to buy bottles, you can get enough for an entire batch of beer for about $20.

Kegging on the other hand, is pretty expensive, and does require a bit more skill to get right.

To get started in kegging, you need kegs, and even used kegs start around $50 each these days (it was about $20/keg when I got into kegging).  You also need a CO2 tank, regulators, faucets, tubing and a whole lot of other little odds and ends.  I'm not even going to bother trying to link to the individual components, and instead link to this kegging system, which runs about $300 on it's own, and just included picnic taps instead of real faucets, and only supports 2 kegs (although, you can expand it, but not cheaply).

Oh, and remember how I said it takes more skill?  Well, you need to be able to get hose lengths correct so you can have the beer properly carbonated,  but not come out as all foam.  I've got my system fairly well dialed in, but some of my taps actually run a bit too slowly.  You also need to be able to diagnose problems with the kegs, and fix them.  As an example, your keg may leak CO2, or even worse, leak beer.

So given all that, why would anyone switch to kegging from bottling?

Well, the big one for me was that bottling is a lot of work, and takes a lot of time.  You need to clean and sanitize ~50 bottles per batch of beer, and fill them all.  I would say that this took about 4 hours per batch of beer.  For kegging, I clean and sanitize one keg, and then fill it, for each batch of beer.  If I'm only doing a single batch of beer, this all takes an hour or less, and a I actually have a couple of extra kegs on hand, so I wait until I have at least 3 kegs to clean, because each subsequent keg takes about 1/3 the time to clean after the first one.  The time difference really starts to show when you've got 3, 4, 5 batches of beer that need to go into bottles or kegs.  3 batches of beer in bottles, 12 hours.  3 batches of beer in kegs, an hour and a half or so.

Another reason is that it's pretty impressive to say "yeah, I've got 7 kegs of beer on tap at home".

There is one downside to kegging that I didn't think about before I made the leap, which is that it's a lot harder to share my beer with friends.  I used to give out six packs of my homebrew to friends and family, but I can't do that anymore.  I can, and do give away growlers of beer, but the beer doesn't last nearly as long in a growler.  You really need to drink it within a day or two.

The Party Pig System
One thing that I tried as sort of an intermediate step between bottling and kegging was the Party Pig.  Each Party Pig holds 2.5 gallons of beer.  You still need to sugar condition the beer, because the Party Pig doesn't carbonate the beer on its own, but it has a pressurized pouch in the Party Pig that keeps the pressure constant after you've carbonated the beer.

It's definitely more convenient than bottling, but it has the down side of needing a place in the refrigerator.  I also had an issue with the faucet in the Party Pig sticking from the dried beer, and dripping a little beer in the fridge every time I would pour a glass of beer.

In hind sight, I would say don't bother with the Party Pig.  If you really don't want to spend the money on a full kegging system, there are also smaller pony kegging systems.  I've got friends that are perfectly happy with the smaller 5 liter kegs. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Indeed Brewing Company

Beth and I have now made a couple of trips out to Indeed Brewing Company's taproom.  The first time we just picked up a few bottles of beer and left, this last time we decided to grab a couple of beers, hang out and check out the scene in this new taproom in NE Minneapolis.

Indeed's tap room consists of a long bar, a bunch of tables and some outdoor seating on the patio.  There is no table service, so you must get your beer from the bar, but it's well run, so if a line does form, it disappears pretty quickly.  They don't serve any food themselves, but there are food trucks parked outside earlier in the evenings if you start to feel peckish.

Unlike a lot of breweries, they don't have anything in their lineup that a non-craft beer drinker would find to be a gentle introduction into the craft brew world.  There are hops, roasted malts and ester producing yeasts abound at this brewery, but I think that's going to be OK for Indeed.

There is already plenty of competition in the area from other craft breweries and brew pubs with milder tasting beers such as Surly's Cynic, Summit's Pilsner and Little Barley Bitter from Barley John's.  With their limited brewing capacity, I think Indeed is better off realizing that they can let other craft brewers woo new craft beer drinkers, while Indeed targets the already established craft beer loving crowd.
Their permanent lineup includes:
Day Tripper - A pale ale with the now familiar citrus hops that mark most pale ales on the American market.  This beer is well done, and quite drinkable.  At 5.4% ABV, it's not exactly a session beer, but I could easily see myself sitting around, shooting the breeze with friends and drinking a two or three of these in an evening.

Midnight Ryder - An American Black Ale (or Cascadian Dark Ale).  My wife is a huge fan of this one, as she is of most American Black Ales, and I have to admit, I really do think this one has a really nice balance of roasty and hoppy flavors.  While I would likely get a different beer while actually at the taproom, I have no qualms about buying a bottle to enjoy with Beth at home.

Also on tap when we've been there:
Shenanigans - This was their summer ale.  It's lighter tasting, with a little fruit/citrus flavor, and a bit on the sweeter side. Definitely a good summer beer.  

Fresh Hop - Another pale ale, but fresh hopped this time.  It was a good beer, enough hops to put it in the APA category, but missing a little something for me.  I think I was hoping for slightly more green, vegetal flavor.  Still a good beer though, and worth a try at least.

Along with the normal tapped beer, Indeed also offers a small variety of infused and cask beers.  Beth tried the raspberry infused Shenanigans, which she said was good, but was a bit too sweet for a full pint.  I had the Day Tripper on cask, which I really enjoyed.  I'm not always in the mood for a cask beer, but when I am, it's nice knowing there's a place with beer on cask close by.  Day Tripper really held up well to the lower carbonation and the higher serving temperature really let some of the complexity of the beer shine through.

Indeed is definitely worth checking out, but be aware that you might need to walk a little as they don't have a lot of parking nearby (it's pretty much all street parking).  Their beer is already available at a number of bars in the area, and they've also invested in a canning line, and plan to start selling their beer in liquor stores in the area in late September (possibly before you even get a chance to read this article.)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Brewing Gadget Review: Mark II Keg and Carboy Washer

Since I started brewing, most of the money I've spent on equipment has gone into making the final bottling/kegging step easier.

I started with bottling, bought a bottle jet, then a  bottle tree and a  Bottle Rinser (Sulfiter) to help sanitize the bottles. eventually I got tired of washing, sanitizing and filling 50+ bottles so I gave the Party Pig a try, which I decided took up too much room in my refrigerator, and wasn't very scalable, so I moved to kegging (I'll get more into the party pig and kegging in a future post.)

Kegs are great, you clean one 5 gallon keg, sanitize it and fill it with beer.  Connect it to CO2, wait a few days and you can start drinking beer, but that still isn't easy enough for me.

Faced with having 8 kegs to clean, I decided to give the  Mark II Keg and Carboy Washer a try.

Normally, my keg washing goes something like this.
1.) Mix a batch of cleaner
2.) Pour a gallon or so of cleaner in each keg
3.) Seal the keg and slightly pressurize
4.) Shake it up to get cleaner everywhere
5.) Let it soak for a bit
6.) Connect the gas and line out to a faucet and run cleaner through the faucet
Every few washings I also:
7.) remove all the fittings and soak them in cleaner, along with the poppets and gaskets and everything else that can be removed
8.) Rinse it all off with plain water
9.) Reconnect everything
Back to normal cleanings:
10.) Rinse out the keg
11.) Sanitize everything
12.) Transfer beer to keg
13.) Pressurize and put in kegerator

Because I want to be as efficient as possible, I tend to wait for several kegs to need to be cleaned before I clean them, which ends up taking me a couple of hours.  Granted, this means I've spent a couple of hours to get enough kegs ready for several batches of beer, as opposed to the 4+ hours I would spend with the whole bottle cleaning and filling process, but it still ends up being a lot of work.

With the Mark II Keg Cleaner, my process was a little different.
1.) Make batch of cleaning solution
2.) Remove all fittings from the kegs and soak fittings, dip tubes, etc. in some of the cleaner
3.) Fill the Mark II with a couple of gallons of the cleaner, put a keg on, plug in the Mark II, watch some tv, take the current kegs off the Mark II and put another one on every 10 minutes
4.) Spray out the inside of the keg with clean water
5.) Rinse off all the fittings, dip tubes, etc.
6.) Reattach everything to the kegs
7.) Sanitize the kegs
8.) Fill the kegs

I did still fill one keg with keg wash so I could use it to clean my beer lines and faucets, and then rinse and sanitize, and it all still took just as long, but I wasn't working the whole time, I was basically letting the Mark II do all the heavy lifting for me.

I had 8 kegs cleaned and sanitized within 2-3 hours, ready to fill with beer.

I'm not sure if I'll bother trying to use the Mark II on my carboys as I have carboy handles attached to them all, and you need to remove the handle to get the carboy to sit properly on the Mark II, and my carboy washing method is already pretty damned easy, but it worked like a dream on the kegs.

Now, make no mistake, the Mark II is definitely a luxury item.  It costs about $100, and is in no way needed to brew or keg beer, but it definitely making my least favorite part of making beer a lot more enjoyable, and have absolutely no regrets about spending the money on it.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Excelsior Brewing Company

This last weekend the wife and I had the opportunity to take a nice, leisurely boat ride around Lake Minnetonka while drinking the current offerings from Excelsior Brewing.  Excelsior Brewing Co. is about two months old, so I thought I could share my thoughts on the brewery with you.

Excelsior Brewing Co. is located in Excelsior, MN, about 20 minutes west of Minneapolis.  Beth and I had signed up for a "beer cruise" of Lake Minnetonka that had shown up on Living Social.  Ben, from Excelsior Brewing, was pouring the beer for the boat ride, and we had a number of appetizers to enjoy for the trip including artichoke dip, buffalo wings, chips with salsa and guacamole and a cheese platter.  We were given four beers from Excelsior Brewing with some pairing notes for the various hors d'oeuvres.

The beers were as follows:
Big Island Blond - A decent blond ale weighing in around 5.1% ABV.  Definitely a beer that could be enjoyed by most beer drinkers, it has a lighter body with a fairly subdued hop flavor.  It seemed to be a favorite with most of the people on the boat.

XLCR Pale Ale - Ben described it as sort of a cross between Summit Extra Pale Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  While it was a decent pale ale, I wouldn't really compare it to either Summit's or Sierra Nevada's offerings.  It was a bit on the sweeter side, but had enough hops to balance it out fairly well.  When I mentioned to Ben that I wouldn't really peg it for being similar to Summit or Sierra Nevada's pale ales, he did mention that the specific batch we were drinking had Glacier hops (he might have said Galena, I don't quite remember for sure) added to it, which the pale ale doesn't normally have.  The beer comes in around 5.8% ABV, and while it's a good pale ale, it's a bit on the sweeter side for my personal tastes, and really isn't a beer that would distinguish itself in any meaningful way to me.

Bridge Jumper IPA - Excelsior's website shows this beer as being 8% ABV, but according to Ben, the batch we were drinking was more like 9% ABV.  This may have been my favorite beer of the evening, although, the IPA label might be a bit off.  The beer has a bit too much fruity character for an IPA, but it's still a very nice beer.  A bit on the sweet side again, and I wouldn't want to drink it all night long, but it would make a nice beer to finish a session off with.  I thought it went really well with the artichoke dip, and may have gone well with some of the cheeses, but most of the cheese was gone by the time I got to this beer.

Bitteschlappe Brown Ale - OK, I'm not sure if that's the actual spelling they used, and I can't find it on their website.  I basically started thinking of it as "Bitch Slap Brown Ale" after Ben mentioned the name was sort of an altered phrase for what they were calling it internally.  According to Ben, we were drinking the first keg of this beer to actually leave the brewery.  It was potentially a little light on the SRM scale to really call a brown ale (although, by the time I got a glass the sun had gone down, and we were sitting on the outside deck without a lot of light, so I could be off on that) but it did have a really nice flavor to it.  This was Beth's favorite beer of the evening.  She describes it as fairly smooth, a little roasty with just a touch of sweet.  Very little hop character, but this will make for a good fall beer.

All in all, I would say that their beer is good, but not a whole lot (in the beer offerings) to make it stand out from the other breweries opening in the area.

That being said, after we got off the boat we took a little walk over to their tap room to check it out.  Here is where Excelsior Brewing does stand out a bit.  Their tap room was absolutely jumping.  They had good music, the staff was extremely friendly, and they had several different sizes of Jenga games strewn throughout.  It was especially fun to watch people try to play the one made from 2"x4" boards after they'd had a couple of beers.

I had won a t-shirt on the boat by answering a trivia question correctly, but Ben gave me the wrong size.  I had asked for an XL, he accidentally gave me what appeared to be a medium baby doll tee, which I gave to my wife (medium would be a bit big for her, but she's hoping to shrink it.)  I mentioned it in passing to Ben as we were leaving the boat, and he promised me an XL shirt if I went to the tap room, which he did make good on, so we got two free shirts.

While I probably won't search out bars that carry their beer, I will buy it if I see it on tap, and will probably make the occasional trip to their tap room, which is where I think they really shine right now.  Their website says their tap room is open until 10pm Thursday through Saturday, but Ben said it's open "until at least 11" multiple times.  It would be nice if they could get a food truck to setup shop near the tap room, I wasn't hungry, but I could see wanting some food if you were hanging out there for a few hours.  If you're in the area, I definitely suggest you try making a trip to their tap room.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Is it infected?

No, I'm not talking about the hangnail on your big toe, I'm talking about your beer.

Nearly every new homebrewer I've ever talked with thinks their first beer is infected.  They taste their beer after it's been fermenting a few days, it tastes a little weird to them because they've never tasted such young beer before, and immediately assume something has gone wrong.

 I think this fear is perpetrated, in large part, by experienced homebrewers stressing the importance of cleaning and proper sanitation.  New homebrewers read about the horrors of failing to properly sanitize, and see all the ways the beer can go wrong, and assume that because they've never done this before, they've screwed something up and it's infected.

The truth is, it's actually pretty difficult to unintentionally infect your beer.  Yeast doesn't play very nicely with other microbes.  It eats all the good food and then poisons its environment by giving off alcohol as a waste product, and you're throwing massive amounts of yeast into your wort.  Very few microbes can amicably survive alongside yeast, and those microbes, while they may make the beer taste funky, can't hurt you.

How can you tell if your beer is actually infected?
One of the easiest ways is to taste the beer, but this doesn't work very well if you're a new brewer.  New homebrewers don't actually know what young beer should taste like, and chances are they've underpitched their yeast, haven't properly aerated, and possibly did a poor job of cooling the wort, all of which will give their beer off flavors, but don't mean their beer is infected.

Another way is to look at the beer in the fermenter.  Does it have a thick, white or tan, frothy head?  That's a good thing, probably not infected (a thin head is fine too.)  Does it have what looks like huge soap bubbles that have been sitting there for days?  OK, that might mean it's infected.  Does it have a very thin, milky looking skin over the top?  Yeah, that's probably infected.

Another great way to tell whether or not it's infected is to take gravity readings.  Has the gravity stopped dropping?  Is it reasonably close to where you expected your final gravity to be?  Then it's probably not infected.  If your final gravity is significantly lower than you expected it to be, you might have an infection.  If your final gravity is significantly higher than you expected, you probably just messed something else up, but don't have an infection (and the beer will be fine, just a little sweeter than you'd planned on it being.)

If you think you have an infection, take a picture and show a more experienced homebrewer.  They'll likely be more than happy to assure you whether or not you have an infection (although, even experienced homebrewers don't know everything, I actually ended up taking a picture of one of my recent beers and asked people whether or not they thought it was infected because, while it didn't really look infected to me, it looked pretty weird.  I'm still pretty sure it's not infected.)

Another great way to go is, once you're sure it's done fermenting and the gravity isn't going any lower, even if you think it's infected, go ahead and bottle the beer and let it bottle condition for a while.  Some infections can actually lend an interesting character to the beer.

If you do bottle an infected beer, you might want to put it in a closed box of some sort in case you accidentally end up with bottle bombs though, and if you open a bottle and it starts gushing everywhere, you might want to think about opening the rest of the bottles to at least let the excess CO2 out so you don't end up with bottle bombs.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mr. Beer - Yea or Nay?

Invariable, when anyone decides to try brewing their own beer, they will eventually come across the Mr. Beer kit.  The kit comes with everything you need to brew your first beer for $40, which gives you 2 gallons of finished beer.  A much easier amount to handle than the 5 gallon recipes that are typical in this hobby.  For an extra $15 you also get everything you need to bottle your beer.

So what's not to love?
While the initial cost if the Mr. Beer kit is low, the ingredient kits are fairly expensive, starting around $15 for a 2 gallon batch.  For not much more money, you could be making 5 gallon batches of beer.
The ingredient kits are made in such a way that you can't easily experiment with the recipes.  The kits are typically a can of hopped malt extract, some dry yeast and cleaner.  Because the extract is already hopped, you're limited in the ways you can experiment with different hops.  Sure, you can try dry hopping, or adding additional hops at different parts of the boil, but you can't get any less hoppy, or try different bittering hops.  Also, the extract that comes with the Mr. Beer kits don't really let you play with different specialty grains, because the flavor/color of the specialty grains has already been added to the kits.  

Now, for the yeast, sure, the yeast that comes with the ingredient kits is likely fairly neutral, but you could try buying different yeasts.  Then again, buying different yeast will run you an extra $5 from most suppliers.

I've also never been terribly impressed with the flavor of the beers that are made from the Mr. Beer kits, but a large part of that could come from the person brewing the beer being very new to the hobby, and not brewing the beer in ideal conditions.

But wait, there are redeeming qualities!
The Mr. Beer kit isn't all bad though.  It is a relatively inexpensive, easily approachable way to get into the hobby, and anything that promotes the hobby is good, in my book. 

I know several people that got their start in homebrewing from a Mr. Beer kit they received as a gift, or decided to buy on their own.  I also know a lot of people that have been scared away from the hobby because of how terrible their beer ended up tasting, but I'm guessing they either messed up somewhere, or just don't care for the type of beer they made.  I'm also pretty confident that the people that were scared away from homebrewing because of the beer they made with a Mr. Beer kit, are the same type of people that wouldn't have lasted very long in the hobby to begin with.

I also have a friend that still uses his Mr. Beer kit to brew experimental batches of beer, now that he's moved on to brewing larger scale batches of beer.

Final notes
If you're thinking about getting into homebrewing, I'd suggest finding someone that already homebrews, and ask to help them brew a batch of beer.  I've had people ask me that a few times now, and sometimes they go on to start brewing, and sometimes they decide they'd rather drink my beer than make their own.
If someone bought you a Mr. Beer kit, and it hasn't been sitting around, unused, for too long, give it a try.  Even if you don't end up liking the beer you make, it'll at least give you an idea as to what is involved in brewing beer, and whether or not you'd like to pursue the hobby further.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Wild Rice Brown Ale Recipe

I Brewed a Wild Rice Brown Ale back on the 17th, a little over 2 weeks ago.  I moved it to secondary tonight, not because it needs to secondary, but because I needed the primary fermenter, and I'm not quite ready to keg it yet (I need to clean some kegs.)

I stole a little sample, and it tasted pretty damned good.  My wife and I are really excited about it.  I can't really give you full tasting notes because the beer was warm, uncarbonated and a little young, but it's definitely inline with what I'm going for, which is a slightly roasty brown ale with some of the nutty flavor from the wild rice.  My friends don't seem to taste what I'm tasting when I drink wild rice beers, but I think the wild rice lends sort of a cross between a nutty flavor, and a very slight hint of concord grapes.  I realize it's an odd description, but it's actually quite pleasant.

For those of you unfamiliar with wild rice, wild rice is not actually rice, it's the seed of an aquatic grass native to the midwestern US.  If it's not locally available to you, you can get some here: Wild Rice

Along with being my first time brewing with Wild Rice, this was also the first all-grain beer I've ever brewed, which was further complicated by needing to do a cereal mash as a part of the brew, which added quite a bit of time and complexity to the brew.

The recipe is entirely my own invention, with some help from this Brew Your Own article and Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels.  I also got some help from the fine folks at The Four Firkins in figuring out how much wild rice to actually add.  They tracked down the amount of wild rice used in Schell's Wild Rice Farmhouse Ale

Wild Rice Brown Ale - All-Grain - 5 Gallon Batch
Brewed 7-17-2012

8 lbs. Briess 2-Row
2.8 lbs. Wild Rice
1.6 lbs. Briess Caramel 60L
0.4 lbs. Briess Chocolate Malt
0.2 lbs. Briess Roast Malt
1 oz. Kent Goldings 5.6%AAU (60 min.)
1 oz. Kent Goldings 5.6%AAU (30 min.)
0.5 oz. Fuggles 4.3% AAU (5 min.)
Wyeast 1335 British Ale II

The wild rice isn't malted, so you'll need to do a cereal mash to unlock the starches.
To do the cereal mash, mix the wild rice and 0.5 lbs of the 2-row with about 10 qt. of water.  Heat this in a pot to 155ºf and hold it at that temperature for about 20 minutes.  Then bring it to a boil for about 60 minutes.  After 60 minutes, the water should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. You will need to be pretty diligent in stirring the cereal mash during the boil to keep the wild rice from burning to the bottom of the pot.

Once the cereal mash is done, add it to your main mash.  I was targeting 152ºf for my main mash, I actually ended up at about 148ºf, but had some boiling water waiting just in case and ended up at 153ºf.

I tried to crush my wild rice, but wasn't able to do so.  I don't have a mill, so I was trying some other methods, and nothing worked.  In the end, I don't think it mattered as my mash efficiency ended up at 78%.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Surly SŸX

When I started this blog about a month and a half ago, I said I would also talk about craft beer.  Up until now, I've been fairly quiet on the subject.  Today, that will change.

Surly SŸX is Surly Brewing Co.'s sixth anniversary beer.  The description from the label reads:
Woah. Who would have thought? Another great year flew by, bringing us to the big SŸX. What better way to celebrate than to challenge ourselves with unfamiliar techniques and materials? Utilizing six wood species in a 'Honey Comb' shape for aging this year's anniversary beer. SŸX comes in at Alc. 15% by Vol. and is one to be savored with it's pale gold color, dry toffee and fruit character and warming afterglow finish.
Todd Haug
Last Monday morning, at about 10:30am, The Four Firkins announced the arrival of Surly SŸX at their store.  I got there at around 3:30pm, and they had already been sold out for two hours.  I then contacted Surdyk's, and they informed me they wouldn't be getting their delivery until Wednesday.  I took my chances and just showed up at about 2:30pm, but didn't find a single bottle in my mad dash through the store.  On my way out, I asked an employee, and they confided in me that the beer had been tucked into an odd, out of the way corner, in an attempt to waylay the anticipated horde of people that would be seeking out the elusive beer.

I was led back to the location of the corner where the beer had been hidden and was told "there is no limit on the number you may purchase".  I was tempted to purchase an entire case, but at $20 a bottle, I restrained myself to purchasing only four bottles.  They were still cold, so despite the heat outside, they arrived at my destination at well below 70۫f.

I managed to keep myself from immediately opening a bottle, and waited until Friday, when my wife and I would have time to actually take our time with the beer and savor it properly.

After a nice, relaxing dinner, we came home and opened the bottle.  I was immediately hit by the strong, flowery smell of the hops.  I poured the beer into two glasses.  The beer was far too cold to begin with, and the only odor was a very flowery hop character.  The flavor was sweet, almost on the edge of cloying, but the strong hop flavor kept it just bitter enough to keep from being too sweet.

There was definitely a strong alcohol flavor to it, and the beer was too strong in general to drink quickly.  This was actually quite beneficial, because we were able to experience the way the flavor changed over about three hours.

As the beer warmed, the sweet flavor became more complex, and the alcohol flavor faded away.  The flowery hops were present throughout the entire session, but helped to compliment the malty flavor well as the beer grew closer to room temperature.  Eventually, the beer actually took on a bit of a sour characteristic, which I didn't expect, but wasn't entirely unpleasant.  

Beth, my wife, compared it to a barley wine.  Overall, I didn't get much of the wood character that I was expecting, but I really did enjoy drinking the beer.  I think I might enjoy the beer a bit more in cooler weather, and plan to cellar the remaining three bottles to see how the beer changes over time.

I love to see breweries trying new things with their beer, and while I wouldn't rank this beer in my top 10 all time favorites, I definitely think it's a great beer, and recommend trying it if you can get your hands on a bottle.

Not entirely certain what I'm going to write about next week, but I hope you'll join me to find out where I go next.

Monday, July 23, 2012

This One's For the Girls

This week I have a guest post from my own wife, Beth.

Well hello there!  I'm the "other half" of Pants Monkey Brewing so to speak - as I'm the wife of the brewer!  Anyway, I'm writing this post for the girls today.  So guys, if you're having a hard time convincing your wife/girlfriend/significant other that homebrewing is a good idea, have them read this post.  Or any ladies lurking on their own, maybe you're interested in brewing but were too shy to say anything, this post is for you too.

So, why do I love homebrew?  First off, it helps that I love beer.  I didn't always love beer though.  It took me a number of years after turning the legal drinking age before I really had a taste for it.  I blame that on the fact that on my 21st birthday I was force fed beer to get to bring home a free mug and yeah, that turned me off of it for quite a while.  Flash forward a few years and my husband, the author of this blog, kept saying how good beer was with pizza or hamburgers and I decided, I really want to try to like beer.  I started with something simple, Leinenkugel's Apple seasonal from that winter, since it was more like cider and worked up from there.

Gradually, we found ourselves into the craft beer scene more and more and then hubby inherted some brewing equipment and said he wanted to try making his own beer, so I said sure, why not?  At the time he was out of work and needed something to occupy his time and I figured, if we make our own beer maybe we'll save money by not having to buy beer as much.

Now, I will have to be honest with you, homebrew is not necessarily always cheaper.  And there can be a lot of cost up front - but over some time it will start to pay for itself the more you get into it.  I will admit, I was more willing to let him start brewing because we did inherit so much of the start up equipment.  But, I also was rather intregued by the concept of being able to make our own beer from scratch.  I love DIY.  I'm not good at most DIY, but this one just seemed do-able.

So that was four years ago and our love of homebrew and beer in general has just grown more and more. The craft beer scene here in MN has exploded in the last probably two years or so and that has just fueled our fire for homebrew.  We see what these awesome local breweries are doing and we want to try it ourselves!  For Christmas two years ago I gifted my husband tickets to Winterfest, a giant craft beer event in St. Paul, MN.  We had a blast trying different beers and I was inspired to create my own recipe after attending!  You heard me right - I actually created a recipe and did the work to make my own Cherry Wheat beer.  My husband likes to crudely call it "Beth's Poppin Her Cherry Wheat Beer" since it was my very first time making everything from start to finish.  He's naughty like that though.

Another reason I love homebrew is I love to throw parties - I'm the quintessential Monica from "Friends", I love being the hostess.  Having a bar with seven kegs now gives me an excuse to throw one hell of a big party in the fall for Oktoberfest.  I love this annual event, we invite our friends, family and co-workers and it's a blast.  It wouldn't happen without homebrew!

Finally, the biggest reason I support my husband's homebrew hobby and why I love it - it's something we enjoy and can do together.  I love sitting out on the deck with him on brew day, I like drinking the beer together and discussing the way it tastes, I even like going to the homebrew supply store and helping pick out the next kit.  And homebrewing makes him insanely happy.  He is adorable when he talks to people about it, his face lights up and it just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.  I'm probably embarassing him and getting all mushy, but seriously, we've had some stressful times in the last few years between work, family drama and other things, but homebrew is something that relaxes us and kind of makes those problems go away.  It is such a wonderful part of our life as a married couple.

So, ladies, I don't know if I did a good job to convince you or not, but I really do think you should give it a try.  It's satisfying and fun and your husband/boyfriend/significant other will love you for it.  If nothing else, tell them that if you let them do this, they have to buy you something pretty in exchange!  I'm teasing.  If you are seriously interested in beer or trying homebrew yourself, there are a couple of organizations geared towards women you should check out.  Barley's Angels is a beer group that meets at a bar/pub to sample and learn about beers, usually on a monthly basis.  I haven't made it to the local chapter meetings here in MN yet, but they are a very active group and it looks like they have a ton of fun.  I have had the chance to participate in another local Minneapolis women's group though - Bitches Brew Crew, they meet monthly to brew a batch of beer from start to finish.  I don't doubt there are other groups like that in other places too, check Meetup.com or Facebook, you never know what you might find!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Yeast - The fungus amongus

Beer, or at least something like what we call beer today, has actually been an extremely important part of human history.  For a long time, beer was actually one of the only clean, safe sources of drinking water available to us, and in large part, thanks to yeast.

Back before we even knew what yeast was, we knew that drinking beer was safer than drinking water straight from a river, lake or well.  We didn't know why at the time, but the whole process of making beer kills microorganisms, such as parasites, bacteria and fungus, that are harmful to us, and pretty much all of the microorganisms that are harmful to us (yeast is actually a fungus, but isn't harmful to us) can't survive in even the tiny amounts of alcohol found in beer, so beer stays safe to drink months, even years after having been brewed.

What makes the alcohol that keeps the beer safe to drink?  The yeast, of course. But what about today, when clean, safe drinking water is plentiful in first world nations, why drink it now?  Well, despite what some people would have you believe, beer is actually fairly nutritious. Beer is a source of protein, some complex carbohydrates, potassium, and various vitamin B complexes such as niacin and folic acid.  Yeast is directly responsible for the vitamin B found in beer.

OK, lets not kid ourselves.  We don't drink beer for the nutritional value, we drink beer for the way it tastes, and for the small amount of alcohol it provides.  But that's OK.  There's nothing wrong with drinking beer as long as it's done responsibly.  

OK, back to yeast.  As I said, yeast provides the alcohol in beer, and can also provide carbonation as both alcohol and CO2 are waste products for the yeast.  Yeast also adds a lot to the flavor of the beer.  Some yeast strains will help bring out the malty flavor of the beer, or accentuate the hops.  Some yeast strains, such as Belgian yeast strains, will give the beer a strong fruity or spicy flavor.  You can easily test this to see the difference that yeast can give the beer yourself by splitting a batch of wort into two different fermenters, and pitch a different yeast in each fermenter.

Yeast can also contribute to a lot of the off flavors in beer, such as making the beer taste cidery, or buttery, or fruity when you're really not looking for a fruity tasting beer.  Yeast will also clean up a lot of these off flavors if left to their own devices.

Lets talk a little about the choices we have for yeast.  First off, don't buy baker's yeast to ferment beer.  It will ferment the beer, a bit, but it's generally not very alcohol tolerant, so it might not ferment out as far as you'd like, and baker's yeast generally doesn't have as stringent quality control as brewing yeast, and for good reason.  If you're making bread, you're only going to let the yeast interact with the dough for a few hours as most before baking the bread.  If you have another microorganism in with the yeast, it really isn't going to have time to cause any real issues with the bread before it's baked.

On the other hand, you're going to let your brewing yeast remain in with your beer for days, if not months or years, so a little acetobacter or lactobacillus will have plenty of time to start multiplying and changing the flavor of your beer considerably.

Brewer's yeast
So what about our choices for brewer's yeast?  First we have dry yeast.  One of the great things about dry yeast is that the process of drying the yeast preserves the yeast really well, so it won't degrade much over time.  It's also packed with nutrients to help kick start the yeast once you add it to your beer, and you can get a lot of healthy yeast packed in a really small container, so one packet of yeast is enough to brew 5 gallons of beer without a problem.  Dry yeast is also very inexpensive when compared to liquid yeast.  The downside of the dry yeast is that there just isn't a very wide selection of dry yeasts to choose from, so you're pretty limited in what you can do with the beer, as far as changing the yeast goes.  Dry yeast is also typically very clean fermenting, so you don't end up with much for off-flavors, but sometimes you actually want the off flavors to add complexity to the beer.

Then we have liquid yeast. Liquid yeast isn't nearly as hardy, and starts to degrade quickly after packaging, even when stored in ideal conditions.  The packages of liquid yeast marketed for only needing one packet of yeast for a 5 gallon batch, don't actually have enough living yeast to ferment the beer well.  On the other hand, you have tons of choices when it comes to liquid yeast.  You can buy yeast specifically for the flavors and properties that you want in your beer, so you can have full control over your end product (or at least as much control as you can expect to have over a living organism.)

Another down side of liquid yeast is that it tends to be fairly expensive, making up to 1/4 the cost of the entire beer you make.  You can mitigate this cost a bit by reusing the yeast.  After you've fermented a batch of beer, most of the yeast falls out of suspension, and ends up at the bottom of your fermenter.  After you remove the beer, you can pour another batch of wort on top of that yeast cake, and then you don't have to pitch any more yeast.  The yeast at the bottom of the fermenter will be more than enough to ferment another batch of beer.  You'll want to reuse the yeast cake within about a week, and you'll want to make sure you don't needlessly expose the yeast to other microorganisms, so keep it covered.

If you just reuse the yeast at the bottom of the fermenter in this fashion, you will end up with a little of the beer from the first batch getting into the second batch of beer.  This means any flavors from the first batch will be added to the second.  You can always make the same recipe, but that can get boring, so just make sure the flavors from the first beer won't be unacceptable in the second batch.  If the first batch was a double IPA, you probably wouldn't want the second batch to be an american light lager. An easy way to account for the flavors of the first batch is to simply make the first batch a lighter tasting beer, and make the second batch a bit stronger tasting.

Another possibility, to remove the non-yeast part of the trub (trub is the sediment at the bottom of the fermenter, not all of which is yeast), and remove most of the flavor influence of the previous batch of beer is to wash the yeast.  I'll try to write an article on washing yeast in the future.

Many American breweries will reuse yeast for up to 10 generations of yeast, but Belgian breweries have been known to use the same yeast cake for upwards of 100 generations of yeast.

Along with your normal brewer's yeast, you can also get some specialty yeasts and bacteria to really change the way your beer tastes. Brettanomyces, lactobacillus, acetobacter and pediococcus can all be added to your beer to add interesting, unique flavors.  If you do ever work with these non-traditional microorganisms, it's a good idea to have a separate set of equipment for the fermentation and bottling/kegging of the beer so you don't inadvertently infect other batches of beer.

Preparing yeast to use
For the homebrew scale, 200 billion yeast cells is considered to be roughly the right amount of yeast to use for a 5 gallon batch of beer.  On the commercial scale, even this wouldn't be nearly enough. You do want enough healthy yeast to minimize off-flavors and to make sure the beer is fully fermented. If you don't have enough healthy yeast, the yeast may produce more of the compounds that contribute to off-flavors, and may even give up on fermenting before all the fermentable sugar is gone.
Preparing dry yeast is easy. Generally speaking, a packet of dry yeast has enough viable yeast to brew a 5 gallon batch of beer as-is. You should let it get to room temperature before pitching (actually, you should get it to the temperature of the wort you're intending on pitching the yeast into.)  After letting the yeast get to room temperature, you can "proof" the yeast, which basically means you're making sure the yeast is still good by putting it in a small water/sugar mixture to see if it starts to ferment in the mixture before pitching it in your wort.

Liquid yeast might require a bit more work to get ready to ferment your batch of beer. Wyeast guarantees their activator yeast packages to have at least 100 billion viable yeast cells at the time of packaging. White labs used to advertise their vials of yeast as containing roughly 50 billion viable yeast cells, but upped it to 100 billion a few years ago.

Unfortunately, 100 billion viable yeast cells is roughly half of what we need for healthy fermentation, and the cell count starts going down fairly rapidly after packaging (by the time it leaves the factory, it's down to roughly 95% viability).  You could always pitch multiple packages of yeast in your wort to get enough yeast, but liquid yeast isn't cheap.  A good alternative is to make a yeast starter.

A yeast starter is basically a tiny batch of beer, with the specific purpose of generating more yeast to pitch in your larger batch of beer. While there are a variety of calculators out there for figuring out the size of the yeast starter you'll need, Mr. Malty's Pitching Rate Calculator is generally considered the definitive resource to use.

Before we make the starter, you're going to want to take the yeast out of the refrigerator and let it warm to room temperature.  The yeast, as it warms up, will start giving off some CO2.  If the yeast is in a vial, you may want to periodically unscrew the top a little to let the excess CO2 escape, and then seal the vial again.  If you have a Wyeast smack pack, there will be a small packet of yeast nutrient inside the main container, you'll want to smack your package of yeast hard enough to rupture this nutrient packet.  The smack pack will then slowly inflate as the yeast wakes up and starts consuming the nutrients.

The following recipe I'm going to give you is a great starting point for making a yeast starter, but it may not be the right size starter for all batches of beer you make.
2 cups water
1/2 cup extra light dry malt extract
2-4 hop pellets (you don't really need the hops, I just like to add them to make it a little more like beer.)

You basically make it like any other beer.  Dissolve the malt extract in the water, bring it to a boil and add the hops.  In this case though, you really only need to boil for about 10 minutes, just long enough to kill anything that might have been living in any of the ingredients.  You then cool it, put it in an appropriately sized container (I like to use a growler), shake it up really well to aerate the wort, pitch your yeast and then use something to cover the container that will let the CO2 out.  I actually use an airlock, but some people just use a piece of sanitized aluminum foil.

Let it ferment for 2-3 days, and it will be ready to pitch in your bigger batch of beer.

You might find that your starter is getting so large you don't want to pour the whole thing in your large batch of beer (for a higher gravity beer, you may need to make a 1 gallon starter).  If that's the case, after the starter has finished fermenting, place it in your refrigerator for a day or two, so the yeast all falls out of suspension, and then pour most of the liquid off the top.  Just be sure to leave enough liquid in the container so you can shake the yeast up enough so it's not completely stuck to the bottom.

I hope this gives you a good primer in yeast and how to use it in your beer.  I'm sure I'll have another post somewhere down the line with a little more in-depth information on yeast.

Next week will be a guest post from my wife on being a woman in the world of homebrew.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bottling your beer

This post comes about a day later than normal.  My week has been a bit busier than normal, so I hadn't had time to write this post yet.  Part of the time has been spent learning about a couple of new brewing techniques that I hope to share with you in the future.

After brewing a batch of beer and letting it finish fermenting, you need a convenient way to store the beer that should also be easy to dispense, and for most styles, you'll also want to be able to properly carbonate the beer.

While there are actually a wide variety of ways to tackle these issues, the first method that most people use is bottling their beer.

Bottling beer, while not the fastest or easiest way to carbonate and store your homebrew, is inexpensive and easily approachable for the new brewer.

The things you absolutely need are bottles, bottle caps and a bottle capper.  You could use  PET beer bottles instead of glass, but I'm going to focus on traditional glass bottles for this post.

When it comes to choosing the bottles to use, if you're going with glass bottles, you want to get the pry-off style bottles, not the ones with the twist-off caps.  The bottle cappers you are likely to use as a homebrewer aren't designed to properly apply caps to twist-off bottles, and could either break the bottle or cause a poor seal, so your beer will be flat instead of well carbonated.

After that, most 12oz or 22oz bottles should work fine, but your best bet is to get the amber colored bottles.  Green or clear bottles let through too much UV (ultraviolet) light, which will cause the beer to become skunky tasting (UV light reacts with the alpha acids in the hops, causing it to break down to sulfur compounds similar to those found in skunk spray) if the bottles aren't stored in a dark place.  Amber bottles block the UV light, so you won't have to worry about your beer going skunky.

A great way to source beer bottles is to buy beer, and save the bottles when you're done drinking the beer.  If you haven't been collecting beer bottles all along, it can be difficult to get 50+ bottles this way quickly, so you can also buy bottles from the link I provided above or at your local homebrew store.  You can also check out Craigslist.  I ended up getting about 6 cases of bottles for free off Craigslist when I first started brewing.

If you do end up using bottles from beer you've purchased, it's a lot easier to rinse out the bottles when you're done drinking beer than it is to try washing the dried beer residue off later.

Things you don't strictly need but should still have are: sanitizer, a bottling bucket, a bottling wand, and an auto siphon (a racking cane works fine too, but you'll have to start a siphon by sucking on the hose, which could potentially cause an infection in your beer.)  You'll also need some vinyl tubing, which you should be able to pick up at your local hardware store.  I find 5/16" ID tubing works best for me, but you might have trouble getting it on some of the equipment, so you might find 3/8" ID tubing works better for you.

A couple of things that are nice to have, but aren't really necessary are a bottling tree and a  a bottle rinser. The bottle rinser makes it easier to sanitize the bottles and the bottling tree gives you a convenient place to put the sanitized bottles until you're ready to fill them.  You might decide you want to buy them somewhere down the line as they do make the bottling process easier, but aren't necessary for bottling your first batch of beer.

You'll also need some sort of sugar to "prime" your beer.  That basically just means adding a bit more sugar so the yeast can create CO2 to carbonate the beer in the bottles.  Table sugar works OK, but most people use dextrose, also known as corn sugar, because normal table sugar can cause some off flavors in the beer. I also know some people that absolutely swear by conditioning tablets. Getting the sugar properly mixed with the freshly fermented beer can be a bit tough sometimes, and the conditioning tablets ensures you're getting the proper amount of sugar in each bottle to provide the appropriate amount of carbonation. 

First things first, make sure your bottles are clean.  If you're using used beer bottles, clean them thoroughly with soap and water, using a bottle brush to tackle any stubborn gunk.  If you've purchased new bottles, just rinse them out to get any dust or debris out of the bottles.

Next, mix up a batch of sanitizer and sanitize your bottling bucket, auto-siphon (or racking cane), vinyl tubing and bottling wand.  If you're using a bottling tree, now is a great time to sanitize that as well.  

Once everything is sanitized, connect the bottling wand to the spigot on the bottling bucket.  You can cut an inch or two from the vinyl tubing and use that to connect the two together.  I suggest pouring a little bit of sanitizer in your bottling bucket so you can verify you know how the spigot and bottle filler work.  Just make sure you get all of the sanitizer out of the bucket before you put your beer in the bottling bucket.

Next, if you're using loose dextrose or table sugar for priming sugar, put about 1/2 cup of water in a pan and add about 5 oz. of the dextrose/table sugar to the pan (you may want to adjust the amount of sugar used in future batches to get the carbonation level you want.  The 5 oz. of sugar is fine for your first 5 gallon batch of beer, but you might want your beer more or less carbonated in future batches.)  Then heat it to a boil and boil the sugar/water mixture for 10 minutes.

After the sugar mixture has boiled for 10 minutes, pour it into the sanitized bottling bucket.  Then connect your vinyl tubing to your auto-siphon and transfer your beer from your fermenter to the bottling bucket.  MAKE SURE THE SPIGOT IS TURNED OFF ON THE BOTTLING BUCKET!!! otherwise you might end up with beer slowly leaking all over your floor, and you don't want that.  

You'll want to make sure the sugar is well mixed in with the beer at this stage.  If it isn't well mixed in, you will end up with under/over-carbonated beer, and can actually end up with bottles so over-carbonated that they literally explode, but you also want to be careful not to stir the beer too vigorously, or you'll mix in a lot of oxygen, which will cause your beer to go stale quickly (this issue of needing to mix the sugar into the beer well, but not oxidizing the beer is why many people use the conditioning tablets.)

While your beer is transferring to the bottling bucket, this is a perfect time to sanitize your bottles and caps.  The bottle caps are easy, just fill a bowl with a bit of sanitizer solution and put the bottle caps in the bowl.  For the bottles, you can dunk them in sanitizer, or if you bought the bottle rinser, just fill the rinser with sanitizer and pump the bottle down on the rinser a couple of times.  If you bought the bottling tree, put the sanitized bottles on the tree, otherwise, just put them somewhere that they aren't likely to have anything fall into the bottle while it's waiting to be filled.

Now for the moment of truth, filling and capping your first bottle!  I personally like to open the door of my dishwasher and fill the bottles over the door so it catches any spills, but you can just put down a dish towel to catch any drips or spills.  Just don't try to fill the bottles over your carpeting, or you'll stain the carpet.

Open the nozzle on your bottling bucket and slip the bottling wand into your first bottle, and push the bottling wand down against the bottom of the bottle.  The bottle might fill more quickly that you're expecting, but wait until the beer is level with the top of the neck of the bottle, then remove the bottling wand.  This should leave just enough of a gap at the top of the bottle (you want about a 1-inch gap between the beer and the top of the bottle, just like a commercially purchased bottle of beer.)  

If you're using conditioning tablets, add the appropriate number of tablets to the bottle.  The packaging should give you an indication as to how many to use.

Set the bottle on the counter, place a (sanitized) bottle cap over the top of the bottle, then use the bottle capper to crimp the bottle cap in place (usually you just put the capper on top of the cap and push down on the wings, you should have gotten some instructions with the capper.)

Congratulations, you've just finished bottling your first bottle of beer!  Now fill another 45 to 55 bottles and you'll be done.  The way I usually did it was, my wife would fill a bottle and I would cap it.  The whole process typically took about 2 hours beginning to end.

Once all of your beer is bottled, it will take about a week or so to fully carbonate, but will probably taste a bit off for up to 3 weeks.  The yeast still in the bottle will clean up the off flavors over those three weeks.

If you decide to open a bottle of beer before the three weeks are up, don't be concerned if your beer tastes a bit funny.  It takes some time for certain compounds in the beer to break down.  If you open a beer after 3 weeks and it still tastes funny, give it some more time.  Many beers do improve with age.  About the only exceptions are hefeweisens (and other wheat beers) and some farmhouse ales which rely on esters to add complexity to the beer.

While I have mostly moved to kegging, I do still bottle smaller batches of beer, and may bottle larger beers (high alcohol content), like barley wines, that should be aged for a considerable amount of time, but I haven't yet made any beers quite that big yet.

I will discuss kegging somewhere down the line, but bottling should be a good start for you.  I think next week I will discuss yeast a bit more and how it contributes to the end beer.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Brewing your first beer!

I suggest you read through this entire article at least once before starting your first brew.  This isn't something where you want surprises part way through the process your first time through.

The day is finally here.  You've purchased all the equipment you need, you've come up with a recipe to brew and purchased all the ingredients, and you're ready to brew.  Lets go through your first brew step-by-step.

Before we start, I'm going to make a few of assumptions about your first brew.  First, I'm going to assume you're using an extract based recipe with specialty grain.  If your recipe doesn't include specialty grain, that's OK, I'll let you know which part of these instructions to skip.  If you're making an all-grain recipe, I'm afraid that all-grain brewing is really outside of the scope of this article.  I'll be covering all-grain brewing at some point, but not today.   I'm also going to assume that you're using dry yeast for your first batch of beer.  If you're using liquid yeast, that's great, it's just a bit more advanced than what this article is intended for.  I'll be writing an article about how to properly use liquid yeast in a couple of weeks.  Lastly, I'm going to assume you're making a 5 gallon batch of beer.  Just scale any measurements I give up or down as appropriate.

First things first, get all of your equipment and ingredients together.  Make sure everything is there.  You can go through the equipment list from my earlier post (you don't need any of the bottling equipment today, we'll get to that later.) and for your recipe, make sure you have the following:
1.) Malt extract, liquid, dry or both. 
2.) Specialty grain, if applicable.  Make sure they're crushed.  It's always easiest to have the store you bought the grain from, crush it, but you can do it yourself at home by putting the grain in a plastic bag and crushing them with a rolling pin.  Failing that, you could put the grain in a food processor and one or two quick pulses should be OK.  This isn't ideal, and make sure you aren't turning the grain into powder.  You want the grain lightly crushed, not turned into flour.
      **Note** If you have specialty grain, you'll also want a muslin or nylon mesh bag to put the grain in while it's steeping.  If you bought a recipe kit, usually the kit comes with such a bag, if not, you'll want to buy one.  You don't want the grain free floating in the wort (unfermented beer).
3.) Hops.   It's possible that you might not actually have this if you bought a kit as some kits come with hopped malt extract.  The beer will be better using actual hops instead of hopped extract, but it isn't strictly necessary.
4.) Yeast.  For this post, I'll assume you're using dry yeast, but if you have liquid yeast, that's fine too.
5.) Water.  This one might sound obvious, but I bring it up for a reason.  The quality of your water will affect the quality of your finished beer.  If your tap water tastes terrible, consider buying some water at your grocery store.  If you do buy water from a store to brew with, be aware that RO (Reverse-Osmosis) water is actually too pure to properly brew with without adding additional minerals/salts to the water, which is outside of the scope of this article, but I may go into at a later date.

Have everything together?  Great!  Now make sure all of your equipment is clean.  Remember, this is a food product you're working with.  If you'd be unwilling to let raw food touch any of the equipment that the beer/wort is going to touch, it's not clean enough.

Now, I feel it important to talk about sanitizing equipment now, even though you won't need to do it until later on in the brew session.  Cleaning equipment and sanitizing equipment are two different things.  Cleaning the equipment means you're getting dust, dirt, old food, etc. off your equipment.  Sanitizing the equipment means you're killing all the bacteria, fungus, mold on the equipment

You need to clean all of your equipment, but you only need to sanitize the equipment that will come in contact with the wort and beer after the wort has finished its boil.  This means you need to sanitize things like the inside of your fermenter, your hydrometer, if you're using a funnel to help you transfer the wort into the fermenter, you'll need to sanitize that as well.  If you take a sample of the beer later, you'll want to sanitize whatever you're using to take a sample of the beer.

It's very easy to infect your beer (introduce unwanted bacteria/fungus/etc.) before fermentation has begun, and, while harder, still possible to infect the beer while fermentation is underway or has finished.

Use a sanitizer like Star San or Iodophor.  Carefully follow the instructions that come with the sanitizer.

Step 1.) Steeping the specialty grain
OK, you've got everything you need together.  The first part of the brewing process is steeping your specialty grain.

Fill your brew pot with water, making sure you leave at least a few inches of space from the top of the pot.  If you have a larger, 7.5+ gallon pot, put roughly 6 gallons of water in the pot.  While you're aiming for 5 gallons of beer, you want more than exactly 5 gallons of water because some of the water will evaporate out while you're steeping/boiling the wort.  You might find you need either more or less than 6 gallons of water to have 5 gallons of wort to put in your fermenter, but the amount you actually need is different for everyone as it depends on things like the size and shape of the brew kettle, the burner, the weather and your altitude.  6 gallons is a pretty safe starting point.

If you don't have a 7.5+ gallon pot, put as much water in the pot as you can, again, leaving plenty of space at the top of the boil kettle as it will foam up quite a bit as you brew.  Aim for at least 2 gallons of water if you can.  We'll add more water to the fermenter to bring your total volume up to 5 gallons at the end.

Next, heat the water to around 155ºf.  Temperature isn't super important for steeping specialty grain, but you want it to be warm enough to help extract the flavor from the grain but not so hot that it starts extracting too many tannins from the grain, which would give a bitter, generally unpleasant flavor to the beer.  Anywhere from 150-160ºf should be fine.

Put your crushed grain into your grain bag (the muslin or nylon bag mentioned earlier) and soak/steep the grain in your pot for about 30 minutes.  Keep the temperature of the water around 155ºf while you're steeping the grain.

After 30 minutes, take the grain out of the pot and dispose of it.  Do not squeeze the grain bag to drain the water back into the kettle, especially if it's a muslin bag.  You'll likely end up squeezing some grain out of the bag and into kettle, and when you bring it to a boil, you'll end up extracting tannins from the grain into your wort, which can negatively affect the flavor of your beer.

Step 2.) Adding the malt extract
This step requires a bit of decision making on your part.  You want to add at least some of the malt extract at this point, but not necessarily all of it. If you're doing a full boil (boiling all of your water in one pot at the same time) you can add all of your malt extract now without much of an issue, and it is likely how the designer of the recipe assumed you would make the beer.  If you're doing a partial boil (only boiling some of the water now and will add more water at the end), you'll likely overcook the sugars in the malt extract, caramelizing them, if you try to add all of the malt extract now.  Your best bet in that case is to only add about 1 lb. of the malt extract now and add the rest during the last 15 minutes of the boil.  You can also do this with a full boil, which will give you a slightly lighter, more fermentable wort.

Whichever way you go, turn off the heat for your boil kettle and add the malt extract to the water.  Stir the water/malt extract mixture until the malt extract has completely dissolved into the water.  It will take a bit longer than you might expect.  A good rule of thumb is to stir until it's completely dissolved, and then stir for another minute.

Congratulations, you've made wort!  We're not done yet, there is still quite a bit to do, but hey, this is an important milestone for you.

    ** Note ** be careful with dry malt extract when adding it to the wort.  Dry malt extract is actually extremely flammable.  When making my first beer, I left the burner on, opened the bag of dry malt extract, and proceeded to accidentally spill a little bit of it.  I ended up engulfed in a giant fireball.  Luckily, other than some singed hair (all of which grew back fine) and having a very frightened wife screaming because she saw her husband go up in flames, I was none the worse for wear.

Step 3.) Starting the boil
At this point, you've steeped your specialty grain and added at least some of your malt extract.  Start heating your boil kettle and bring it to a boil.  Do not wander away while you are doing this!  As you get close to when the wort actually starts boiling, a layer of foam will form on top of the wort.  This layer of foam traps in heat, allowing the wort to actually exceed the temperature it would typically boil at.  The superheated wort will boil over the side of the kettle and make a sticky mess that is difficult to clean up of you aren't paying attention.

You will see the foam on top suddenly start to rise very quickly.  When this happens, turn down the heat, use a large spoon to stir the wort, you can even take a spray bottle full of water and mist the top of the foam to help it collapse.  Your main goal here should be to keep things under control until the wort stops trying to foam over the top of the brew kettle.

After a few seconds, maybe a minute, the foam will collapse into the wort, and you'll be left with a nice rolling boil.

Here is my one secret to making a good beer, and I don't make much of a secret out of it as I will proclaim it to anyone who will listen.  You want the heat on the boil kettle to be as low as possible, and still have it boil.  I used to pride myself on how high I could get the burner, how violent I could make the boil without it overflowing the brew kettle.  But as I got the heat higher and higher, the sweeter and sweeter the beer ended up tasting, to the point where I was making beer I didn't want to drink because it was too sweet.  Why?  Because the sugars in the wort were caramelizing, and yeast can't consume the caramelized sugars.  If you want a sweet beer, there are far better, more consistent ways to get that effect.

Step 4:) The boil
Now you'll need to consult your recipe.  What you're looking for is information about the hop additions.  It might be stated in a few different ways, such as "Add X at the start of the boil, after 45 minutes add Y, after 60 minutes remove from heat and add Z" or it might be written like this:
Hop X (60 min.)
Hop Y (15 min.)
Hop Z (0 min.)
Those are two different ways of writing the same thing.  The first example is fairly self explanatory, the second example means hop X is added 60 minutes before the end of the boil, hop Y is added 15 minutes before the end of the boil and hop Z is added right at the end of the boil.

You may even have hop additions that call for 90 or more minutes, but that is less common.

Whatever the recipe calls for, start the timer when you add the first batch of hops, following the recipe for each hop addition.

Keep an eye on the boil kettle for the first minute or so after every hop addition.  The wort may foam up again, so you want to make sure it doesn't boil over if this happens.

If you only added a portion of your malt extract at the beginning, add the rest for the last 15 minutes of the boil, making sure you stir it in very well.

The recipe may even call for other additions as well, such as dextrose (corn sugar), spices or fruit extracts.  Just add them as called for in the recipe.  If you do have dextrose, make sure it's not meant to be priming sugar.  If it is, don't add it to the boil, you'll need it later for bottling.

Do not cover the pot during the boil.   One of the things happening during the boil is that sulfur compounds and other things that make the beer taste bad are boiling off and evaporating.  If you leave the lid on, these nasty compounds will stay in the beer, causing it to taste bad.  Leaving the lid on also promotes boil-overs.

Step 5.) Cooling the wort
From this point forward, do not let anything you haven't sanitized touch the wort or beer.

When the time called for the boil in the recipe has finished, remove the boil kettle from the heat.  Don't cover the pot, and as quickly as you can, bring the temperature down below 140ºf.  At temperatures above 140ºf, the wort creates DMS, dimethyl sulfide, but because the wort isn't boiling, the DMS dissolves into the wort instead of evaporating away.  DMS will give your beer a bit of a canned vegetable flavor.  Creamed corn beer doesn't sound terribly appetizing to most people.

Then, get it down to about 70ºf as quickly as you can.  The speed at which this happens is a bit less important, but still somewhat important.  After you get below 140ºf, you're entering the sweet spot for bacterial/fungal growth, and you've just made lunch for them (the sugary water).  The sooner you get it down to 70ºf, the sooner you can pitch your yeast.  The yeast doesn't really like competition, so it will help prevent infection.

So, how do you actually go about cooling your wort?

There are a few option.  The first, and best option is to use a purpose built wort chiller.  The problem with wort chillers are, they cost money, and this is your first batch of beer.  Do you really want to spend an extra $40+ when you aren't certain you're ever going to use it again (although, I certainly hope you do decide to brew more beer after your first batch)?

The second option is, fill your sink or bathtub with water, preferably ice water, and put the boil kettle in the ice water.  Make sure you don't get the water in the boil kettle as it likely hasn't been sanitized.

The third option is, if you've only done a partial boil, put the hot wort in your fermenter and top it off with cold water.  If you do this, make sure you've boiled the additional water to kill any baddies that might be lurking in it, and then allowed it to cool before adding it to the wort.  Also keep in mind that this can be dangerous if you're using a glass fermenter as the sudden change in temperature can cause the glass to shatter.

Once you've cooled the wort to around 70f, you can take a measurement of the Specific Gravity of the wort using a hydrometer.   The hydrometer will tell you what temperature it's calibrated for, and hopefully it came with instructions on how to correct the reading for different temperatures.  Just float the (sanitized) hydrometer in the wort.  The line/number that the hydrometer is floating at is your reading.  Some sources state the correct way to read it is from the bottom of the meniscus (the surface tension of the liquid causes the liquid to creep up the side of the hydrometer a bit, this is the meniscus), other sources tell you to read from the top of the meniscus.  For now, just pick top or bottom, and just be sure to read it the same way the next time you take a reading.

Step 6.) Transferring wort to fermenter and aerating
After the wort has cooled, you need to transfer it to the fermenter (assuming you didn't choose the third option above.)  If you're using a plastic bucket for your fermenter, just pour the wort into the fermenter.  If you're using a Better Bottle or glass carboy for your fermenter, you can either use an Auto-Siphon to transfer the wort to the fermenter, or use a large funnel to help pour the wort into the fermenter.  If you don't have 5 gallons of wort, top it off with water you've boiled to remove any bacteria/fungus.

Yeast requires oxygen to multiply, so once you've transferred the wort to the fermenter, you need to aerate the wort.  This simply means getting oxygen dissolved into the wort.  

You can use something like an air stone connected to an O2 tank or air pump with a HEPA filter.  But again, that's extra money, and this is your first batch of beer.

The other thing you can do is close up your fermenter and shake it.  Shake it until you feel like your arms are going to fall off.  The more you shake it, the more O2 that will be dissolved in the wort, the more dissolved O2, the healthier the yeast, the healthier the yeast, the better the beer.

You'll eventually want to get something like the air stone setup, but you really don't need it right away. 

Step 7.) Pitching the yeast and finishing up
The last thing you need to do is add the yeast to the wort.  This is called pitching the yeast.  There really isn't any trick to doing this, just open the package of yeast and pour the yeast onto the wort.  You don't need to mix the yeast in, it will get there on its own.

For your first beer, I'm going to suggest you use dry yeast.  You lose some control over the end flavor of the beer that way, but it's really the easiest way to go for your first beer.  If you bought a liquid yeast, that will work OK for now.  You typically want to create what is called a yeast starter when using liquid yeast, but we'll just go ahead and pitch the yeast without one for now.

Once you've pitched your yeast, put the lid, carboy cap, rubber stopper on the fermenter and install the airlock.  Put a little bit of water with sanitizer mixed in, into the airlock to keep anything from passing through it the wrong way.

The yeast will now begin multiplying and converting the sugar into alcohol.  This is called fermentation.

Fermentation and beyond
Store the fermenting beer in a cool, dark place, but not too cool.  You're looking for between 65-75ºf (for future brews, you'll want to consult the information on the specific yeast you're using to determine the best temperature to ferment the beer at.)

If you're using clear glass/plastic container for your fermenter, keep it somewhere very dark, or at least out of the light.  If you don't have anywhere appropriate, put an old t-shirt over it, or wrap it in a towel.  You just don't want the beer/wort exposed to the light if you can help it.

After 1-3 days, you'll get a thick, foamy head on top of the beer, this is called krausen.  It's a mixture of wort/beer, CO2 and yeast.  This is a good thing.  The airlock will also likely bubble quite a bit.  Don't worry if it doesn't though.

Fermentation will take about a week.  After 3-5 days, take a small sample of your beer and take a reading of the specific gravity of the beer with your hydrometer.  The reading should be lower than it was before you added the yeast a few days ago.  If the reading isn't lower, there's a problem.  Either your yeast didn't start fermenting the wort, or you're not using the hydrometer properly.

Don't pour your beer sample back into the fermenter.  You can either drink it to see how it tastes, or pour it out.  It's better to waste a little beer now than to risk infecting the whole batch.  Don't worry if it doesn't taste good now, it still has a few weeks before it'll really be ready to drink anyway.

Take SG (specific gravity) readings every 1-2 days until you get 3 readings in a row that haven't changed.  Once the SG has stopped dropping, your beer is ready to bottle.

If you screw up any step along the way, don't panic, it's likely that everything will be OK.  As Charlie Papazian likes to say in his book The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, "relax, don't worry, have a homebrew", or in your case, a commercial beer, as this is your first batch.

This post is already more than long enough, so next week I'll cover bottling the beer.