Blame the kit

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So it turns out that the type of yeast that you use is VERY important. That was our distinct take-away from the first brew-session. If you use the right yeast, red ale will taste like… well… red ale. If not it could smell like… bananas.

Our first brewing session took place – as mentioned in the previous post – on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. The brew pot – my Home-Depot turkey fryer – was ready and waiting, and Matt and Jared had picked up ingredients. For the first brew, we decided to go for a kit: Homebrew Heaven’s Rock’n Red Ale. The decision was easy; if it turned out delicious, we were simply successful first-time homebrewers, but if it turned out weird we could blame the kit.

For the record, I’m blaming the kit.

Matt’s pick was solid. Red ale has that smooth but solidly malty flavor, darker color, and delicious (but light) hoppyness – think… Men’s Room Red – that the three of us thoroughly enjoy. Best of all, the brew instructions were relatively simple. For us new-brewers, simple is good. Actually, simple is better than good; it’s absolutely necessary.

So we get dig into the box, and here’s what we find:

1lb of unspecified steeping grains

6lbs of Light DME with the first round of bittering hops (Northern Brewer, FYI) already mixed in

A grain bag

2oz of Amarillo hops

1 package of ale yeast

And 1 package of priming sugar

So after being a little thrown by the idea of premixed pelletized hops in the dry malt extract, we collect ourselves, pour 2 gallons of water in the turkey-pot, and bring it to 150 degrees.

As a note, we’re already deviating from the printed instructions at this point, but that’s how we roll.

So the pound of grain gets poured into – you guessed it – the grain bag, and the inappropriate behavior ensues. It’s not hard to understand why. Picture it. Three guys now have a cheesecloth bag, filled with a pound of grain which is creating a distinct, bulging, roundish-shape at the bottom, which the instructions are commanding us to steep in the water using a “t-bagging motion”. Thus the first unofficial “rule” of shadowbrewing comes into existence: the person doing the steeping must do so while distinctly and purposefully bending their knees so as to emulate the above-mentioned motion. Yup. We’re basically children.

After 30 minutes of steeping (knees bent of course), we strain the bag, and bring the pot to a boil, watching specifically for the “break” in the boil. Steeping the grains before the boil turns gives water (now wort) a distinct color and flavor – based on the grains that are used – and releases some sugars as well. The resulting boil is a delicious-smelling foamy mixture that needs to break – to expose the rolling wort – without boiling over. Boil-overs create a sticky mess, and our brewing instructor scared us into paying close attention to our pot in order to prevent this from happening. The prevention is easy; you simply turn the heat down to reduce the boil. Of course, you don’t want the water to stop boiling, otherwise you have to bring it back to a boil, risking a boil-over once again. Sound silly and uncomplicated? Good. It is. The boil breaks, exposing this beautiful rolling wort, we turn down the heat, “vigorously” (no knee bending on this one)mix in our DME with premixed hops, bring it back to a boil… and the waiting begins.

For most beers, boils last for about 60 minutes. 60 awesome minutes.

You set the heat, set a clock, and crack a beer. Then crack another beer. At 45 minutes, throw in one oz of the Amarillo. More beer. At 58 minutes throw in the other oz. Squeeze in more beer (a challenge, I know).

At 60 minutes, pull it off the heat, and begin cooling to 80 degrees. For this, I whipped up a home-made wort-chiller, consisting of 10 feet of ¼ inch copper, some ¼ inch rubber tube, and a hose connector. Connect the chiller to the hose, drop it in the wort, and jiggle it every so often so the sugars don’t stick to it.

We drop to 80, transfer to the fermentation vessel (sounds cool, but it’s just a plastic bucket), add H20 to total 5.5 gallons, and dump in the yeast. A hydrometer reading reveals that the starting gravity of our concoction is 1.058; well within the preset limits for this brew.

We also brewed a Pale ale that day (I’ll post the recipe later) but fast forward to May 14th. I drop the hydrometer into the fermented liquid, and the gravity meter reads 1.020. The beer is ready to be bottled, and should have about 5% ABV. Hell yeah! That’s what we’re looking for.

The following day we bottle (while my lovely wife whips up some prototype labels for us) and we set the beer aside again.

Cool tip for bottling BTW: Fill a plastic soda bottle with the brew, and set it aside with the rest. When it’s  firm when you try to squeeze it (that’s what she said), then your beer should be pretty much ready to go.

Anyways, when the bottle passed the squeeze test (about 4-5 days later), I threw a couple in the fridge and popped them open the next evening. The above-mentioned pale was delicious. Smooth, with a light malt and just the right hoppy bite. The Red was… weird. It wasn’t really bad, it had the malty and hoppy characteristics of other reds, but it had a smell and an aftertaste that I couldn’t nail down. I went through half a bottle before I figured it out; it had the same back of your mouth flavor as PBR: Pennies, Blood and Rust. I cracked another bottle just to make sure. It was there as well. That weird tinny tinge had invaded our first brew like the aliens in Independence Day (not every day you see a good ID4 reference, huh?).  That weekend I popped one open with Jared, and his reaction wasn’t a result of the aftertaste, but the smell. It had a distinctly fruity nose to it; like beer-soaked bananas.  

So, it turns out that the “Ale Yeast” that was included in the package was actually closer to a yeast that could be used for a wheat beer or a hef; beers that you would expect to have a fruity nose. Live and learn, I guess.

So this illustrates a few things: 1 – it’s good to brew with multiple people, because if one person (or two in this case) don’t prefer the beer, then you can give it to the other guy; 2 – the type of yeast that you use is important; and 3 – the first time you try brewing, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to turn out perfect.

Let’s be honest though… I’m still going to drink it.

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