Further adventures in Homebrewing

It was warm on the patio, and a gentle breeze stirred the trees in the back yard. The Postal Service played on the Sonos. A Stone Pale Ale sat on the patio table, condensation beginning to bead up on the neck and run down the bottle. Next to it, the 10 gallon cooler I’d turned into a mash tun with judicious use of weird plumbing things that, 24 hours earlier, had been as relevant to my life as a musket. Just behind the mash tun, in a paper bag, nearly 13 pounds of crushed grains waited to go into the mash tun.

I looked at the brewing kettle on the propane burner to my right. The water was beginning to stir, small bubbles rising from the bottom as science happened. I took out the thermometer and checked the temperature: 155 degrees.

“Well, here goes nothing,” I thought, in the digitized voice of Lando Calrissian from the Return of the Jedi arcade game. I picked up the bag of grains, and poured it into the cooler-cum-mash tun. It filled it about 1/3 of the way in a small cloud of fragrant dust. I turned the heat off on the burner, and stirred the water. I checked the temperature again: between 160 and 162. Perfect.

I lifted the kettle off the burner, and carefully poured most of the water into the grains. I stirred them around, making sure they were all wet, and then added the rest of the water. I set the timer for an hour, and recorded all the steps I’d taken in my brewing journal.

Project 9. I wrote. Stone Pale Ale. First All-Grain! 11/3/11 2:10 PM.

When Ryan suggested that we make beer together this summer, I thought it would be an awesome father/son project, an excuse to spend a lot of time together, and something that would end with us having our own beer.

All of those things happened, and they were all awesome. Mission accomplished.

What I didn't expect, though, was that I would be here, a few months later, working on my 9th batch of beer. I didn't expect to find myself in a hardware store last month with a diagram in one hand and a bunch of weird plumbing bits in the other, planning to convert a 10 gallon cooler into a mash tun. I didn't expect to know what a mash tun even was, in fact.

And yet here I was, using one I’d built myself, to make my friend’s beer, following a recipe out of his book. It was exciting, exhilarating, and a little frightening.

Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew, I reminded myself as I took the temperature: 160. Still too hot. Shit. I should have let it cool more.

I went into the house and grabbed a pint glass out of the kitchen. I poured my beer into it, and took a nerve-settling drink. If everything went according to plan, in about 5 or 6 weeks, I would have a homebrew version of it that I’d made myself, entirely from scratch.

I checked the recipe again, confirmed that I had everything set up the way it was supposed to be set up, and checked the temperature again. It was 155, still hotter than the 152 it was supposed to be.

Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. I took another sip of my beer, smaller this time, and looked around the yard. It was unseasonably warm for early November, the breeze carrying the slightest hint of autumn in front of it. My dogs came out of the house and began chasing each other around the yard. I took the temperature again: 152. I really did relax, and stopped worrying.

About an hour later, I opened the spigot on the mash tun and began collecting my sweet wort. Just like the book said, it began cloudy, with some grain hulls in it, but quickly cleared. I stopped the flow, poured the cloudy liquid back into the mash tun, and opened the spigot again. I noticed that it was leaking a little bit where I’d failed to make a perfect seal against the wall of the cooler, but a little jiggling and prayers to Hanseath stopped it up pretty quickly. I’ll have to figure out a way to fix that, I thought.

As the liquid drained into the brewing kettle, I picked up a pitcher of warm water at the prescribed ratio of liquid to grains, and began my sparge. I’m sure this is nothing for experienced homebrewers, and for non-brewers it probably doesn’t mean anything, but it felt like a major achievement when I saw the sweet wort that I’d created by mashing my own grains begin to fill my brew kettle. That’s going to turn into beer, and I’m doing it entirely on my own! I made this! I thought, in the old X-Files voice.

The sparge happened a little faster than I wanted, but I collected almost six and-a-half gallons, nearly filling the brewing kettle to the top. To prevent a nasty boilover, I drained off about a half gallon, which I took into my kitchen in a small jug. I set it on the counter, and took a long, deep smell… it was wonderful, just the way it should smell. I poured some into a little glass I have with a monkey on it, and took a cautious sip. It tasted very similar to the sweet wort from the first batch of beer Ryan and I made during summer, but this came from grains I crushed and mashed myself, instead of extract. I felt a tremendous sense of achievement, and wondered if it would be weird to drink it all on principle.

I went back onto the patio. The dogs had tired themselves out, and were snuggled up together on a piece of carpet they claimed after we put out there to be thrown away six months ago. On the Sonos, The Postal Service gave way to Tegan and Sara. I fired up my burner, and hit the countdown timer on my phone. For the next ninety minutes, I stirred like a boss, added hops on schedule, and never had a boilover. The patio smelled heavenly, and I wistfully wished that I could bottle the aroma as well as the beer.

When the boil was finished, I put my copper wort chiller into the kettle, and began cooling it. It only took about 25 minutes and around 15 gallons of water (which I collected and used to water plants for a couple of weeks after) to get down to 70 degrees. I was astonished by how smoothly everything was going, but I didn’t stop to think about it too much, having grown up in a place where the simple act of declaring “Hey, the traffic isn’t too bad,” will instantly result in a Schumacheresque multivehicle explosion a mile ahead of you that snarls traffic on every freeway in the city for twelve hours.

I picked up my journal and wrote Boil w/o incident for 90 min. Wort chiller worked perfectly. 25 min to 70.

I took the chiller out, and gently put my hydrometer into the liquid. This was the moment of truth: this was when I found out how closely I got to the target gravity to 1.056. I gripped the glass between my thumb and forefinger, and spun it with a snap of my fingers. I felt like I was watching a roulette wheel, knowing that I’d placed the mortgage payment on black.

The numbers blurred, and it pushed tiny ripples outward to lap against the side of the kettle. A few eternal seconds later, it slowed and bobbed freely in the center of the wort. I held my breath and looked closely at it.

1.055. Adjusted for temperature, it was actually 1.057.

I may have let out a victorious cry that drew the attention of my dogs, who may have quickly lifted up their heads in a jingle of collars and tags. I may have pumped my fist like a fool. I may have looked again, more closely this time, to confirm that I hadn’t imagined it. I may have taken the hydrometer out, put it back in, and repeated the entire process, just to be sure.

It’s been a few weeks, so I can’t confirm or deny that those things did or didn’t happen… but I do know that in my brewing journal I wrote in large, excited, vigorously underlined script: OG: 1.057!!!

I took the hydrometer out and set it carefully on the table. Those things are so delicate, it’s a miracle someone as clumsy as me doesn’t break them every time he looks at them. (I’m on my third, by the way.)

Then, I opened the spigot on the kettle and let the wort flow into my fermentation bucket. When it was done, I stirred it like crazy with a wire whisk and a spoon until the surface was thick with foam, and then I stirred it some more. When my forearms were sore and my back ached from leaning over, I let the spinning wort settle down, and then I pitched my yeast. The Longwinters began to play on the Sonos.

“Go to work, little yeasties! Eat all the sugar and turn this into beer! I believe in you! You can do eet!”

I put the lid on my fermenter and put an airlock into the top. I moved it all into my office, and began the waiting game.

(Waiting game sucks.)

Ten days later, I racked the beer into a carboy to clear. Ten days after that, I bottled just over four and one-half gallons of my very own Stone Pale Ale. I checked my final gravity before I added my priming sugar, and may have scared my dogs (and all my neighbors’ dogs) with the victory scream I let out when I saw that the final gravity was 1.015, exactly where the recipe said it should be. I did some math (math is hard) and calculated the ABV to 5.5%, exactly where it should be. 

Now, I’m playing the waiting game again until around December 12th, when I’ll be able to open my first bottle of this beer and find out if the final is as close to where it should be as it’s been every step of the way. 

Making beer is this wonderful intersection of science and art and cooking that is more fun and rewarding than I ever expected it to be. It’s so easy, and so rewarding, if you like art and science and cooking (and beer) you should totally make some of your own.

Even if my Stone Pale Ale isn’t exactly where it should be, I’m happy that I made it and enjoyed the process. Even if it isn’t exactly what I am expecting, I’ll keep on making more beer, learning something new from each batch, because I've found a hobby that I'm going to love for the rest of my life. If I could make beer every weekend, I would. If I had the space to build a big old system with fancy things and a whirlpool and a cooler for lagering and — okay, maybe I wouldn't do that … this year.

Post Script: After I made this batch of beer, Anne and I went to the Stone Bistro and Brewery in Escondido. As we were walking up to the doors from the parking lot, the smell of brewing washed over us.

"They're making Stone Pale Ale," Anne said.

"How do you know that?" I asked.

"Because it smells exactly like our patio smelled a few days ago when you were making it."

I can't say for sure, but I in my head, I may have been done the Snoopy Dance.

76 thoughts on “Further adventures in Homebrewing”

  1. You don’t know the age of the recipient, to prevent tax evasion, exploding bottles, etc. I understand it, but it’s mostly just a headache for the honest types.
    Sorry for the double post reply fail.

  2. If you keep breaking your hydrometer, you might look into a refractometer =) After you use it, you can rinse it off and put it back in its little protective case.

  3. To add to this- Check out breweries and brewers in the area, many microbreweries around here will allow people to come in and get excess yeast on transfer days, especially if you belong to a home brewers club.

  4. Haha, I said the same thing. I think I’ve broken some pretty expensive hydrometers in my time, some that would even give a refractometer a run for the money =(

  5. +1 on making starters. I just made one for my first 5 gallon batch in a long time. Compared to direct-pitching the smack-pack, fermentation is 100x more solid and vigorous.
    I’m moving to kegging soon, and from what I’ve read it is basically the next step for people at your stage (I’m at the same place as you are, although with a few more batches under my belt).
    Might I also recommend a refractometer for testing the OG of your wort pre-boil. More accurate, no need to correct for temperature, and you only need a drop. They work wonderfully. You’ll still need to the hydrometer for testing after fermentation (alcohol throws off the refractometers and I don’t trust the correction algorithm).

  6. There is nothing more heady than the smell of sweet wort you mashed yourself. You make me want to get back into my cordial and liqueur making. And try beer.
    Thank you for the inspiration…this Girl Geek has a mission.

  7. I have to make some time to do some brewing again. It’s been a few years. I’ve never done a full grain brew, but I’ve made some good stuff with extracts and partial grain. The last time was for Christmas a few years ago when we made an amber, a Scottish ale and a hefeweitzen.

  8. I often use Malta (unfermented beer), available on the International Foods aisle at the grocery store, for my yeast starters and to store yeast cultures in the fridge.
    I need to get a stir plate as my next equipment purchase – great idea.

  9. Did you heat the honey, or just mix it with the water and immediately pitch the yeast? I’ve started doing the latter, that method maintains the characteristics of the honey that can be lost by heating.

  10. Hi Wil,
    Extremely well written post. Your fiction writing is definitely influencing your daily writing. The dogs’ tags, the voices, the smells – it all adds up. A perfect punchline ending with Ann. But the most interesting was the vocabulary. Brewing vocabulary is very unique and yet the unfamiliar terms only made the story all the more enjoyable.
    Sadly, this has not always been the case. I have been reading your blog for years. I have enjoyed most the stories about your family. And the stories about your childhood when you were working on The Happiest Days were really good, too. However, when you were playing poker and posting about poker techniques it was all blah, blah, blah, blah to me. I had no comprehension of the terms and no interest in the game.
    This post had me suspended between two worlds – one where I was right beside you hearing the dogs, the music, the goofy voices and the other of total disbelief that I had no idea what you talking about. A mash tun, sweet wort, a hydrometer is delicate?
    It was all fabulous.

  11. Congratulations on your first all-grain, Wil!
    Your writing captured perfectly the emotions you can feel while brewing. When you hit your starting gravity you make the beer gods smile.
    As I write this I’m cooking three gallons of dunkel on the stove in honor of the arrival of my newborn son. It’s cold enough here in Seattle now so I can take another stab at lagering.
    Thanks again for the tip on the Stone Brewing book. I finished it last week.

  12. Wil,
    Kegerators are super easy to make, you should be able to get all the parts (except for the fridge) from your brewing supply.
    I need either a larger one, or build a second. I have 5 corny kegs. My kegerator only holds two of them. My recent RootBeer Ale has been a huge hit making space for another in the fridge.
    Do you plan on posting recipes to your blog?
    Thanks,
    Gary Watts
    Seattle

  13. Awesome write up, Wil. And holy hell, I am off-the-charts jealous that John Palmer invited you for a brew.
    I’ve just started homebrewing myself. For our first anniversary, my awesome wife bought me a bunch of stuff at our LBH recommended to her by some of her co-workers.
    My first batch turned out pretty amazing. And one of the reasons it did turn out as well as it did was John’s amazing website. I loved that site so much and was bitten so hard by the brew bug, I bought his book and have nearly read it cover to cover.
    Let me second the hopes that you’ll share some recipes. Thanks again.
    -Patrick Murray
    Clovis, CA

  14. A little late on this comment, but you NEED to make a montage of your home brewing adventures set to Carl Orff’s O, Fortuna. It makes everything about 300% more epic. Think about it…

  15. I hope you join AHA–American Homebrewers Association. They are great people and fun to be around. Maybe you will consider going to the National Homebrewers Convention in Seattle in June, registration starts on February 1.
    - Norm

  16. Oh I've been a member for almost three months, now! I keep my card in my wallet next to my CBLDF and ACLU cards, in a place of honor.

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