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. I don’t drink beer. I don’t homebrew. I still found this blog about the process both informative and enjoyable. Your child-like excitement leaps off the page and gives the reader a high five. Good stuff, Wil. Good stuff.

  2. Wil, the next time you do video from your phone, you need to do the Snoopy Dance. I agree with Twiddle above, I don’t like beer, but I still enjoy reading about your ‘adventures’.

  3. Awesome narrative, Wil. As many batches as I’ve brewed off and on over the years, I have not gone to all grain yet. Right now space, time, and money prevents me from going that route. If you do another live stream, I think you should do one of you and Ryan brewing a batch. Oh, and definitely do the Snoopy Dance: )

  4. You made me want to go out and start brewing beer. And then I remembered that I don’t like beer. It would be pointless. That’s some successful writing!

  5. Homebrewing is awesome. All-grain homebrewing is just freaking amazingly awesome.
    One tip though – put your wort chiller in the boil for the last 20 minutes – it will help sanitize it. I actually just put mine in the kettle for the entire boil so I don’t forget.

  6. Welcome to the all-grain club! I’m impressed that you didn’t have a boil over. My first all-grain experience involved a volcano of a boil over and only 3.5 gallons of wort.

  7. Wil thanks for sharing your story. You actually got me started on home brewing too, I started a couple of months ago with a kit from Brooklyn Brewshop and now I’ve upgraded to simple 5 gallon system too. It’s been an awesomely fun ( and tasty!) trip! Thanks for getting me started!

  8. Great story. I’m looking forward to making the switch to all grain on my next batch. One bit of advice that will make your life exponentially easier: switch to kegging. You can cut your turnaround time by 50% with force carbonation, plus you only have to sanitize one large container instead of 40-odd small ones.

  9. “And a gentle breeze stirred the trees in the backyard…” From the news reports you have had more than a gentle breeze in your neighborhood. Tell us about it. Thanks.

  10. You sir, continue to level up at homebrewing at an astonishing rate!
    I’d say the next, fairly simple but game-changing addition to your skill sheet should be making yeast starters with a stir plate and an erlenmeyer (conical) flask. You basically build a very simple wort using about 1 liter of water, 100 grams of extra light DME, and a pinch of yeast nutrient/energizer and pitch your yeast pack into it. A piece of aluminum foil lightly placed over the top (to let air in, but keep microorganisms out) finishes the setup.
    You get this starter rolling 18-24 hours before you need to pitch it, and you’ll end up with an order of 3-4x the amount of active yeast cells than you started with. The stir plate keeps the yeast in suspension, and continues to knock CO2 out, and oxygen into the solution, and that’s what causes the yeast to reproduce so rapidly — this is the very reason you’re oxygenating your brew in the fermenter right before you pitch… the big dose of oxygen switches yeast into a massive reproduction mode, and once they consume the oxygen, reproduction slows to a crawl and they get down to the business of eating the sugars and producing ethyl alcohol and CO2.
    So, by building a starter you end up with a much larger volume of very awake, very hungry, piranha-like yeasties. Your brew will ferment out faster and more thoroughly, the potential for a stuck fermentation will be nearly non-existent, and let’s face it… an erlenmeyer flask looks awesome on the kitchen counter — real mad science like stuff. *grins*
    You can make your own stir plate for ~$25, or just buy one for ~$70, and the erlenmeyer flasks run anywhere from $10 – $40. I’d recommend the 2 liter flask in case you need to build larger starters than the standard 1 liter. All this stuff can be got at most any homebrew place, or you can hunt down a bargain on the internet.

  11. My ancient garage fridge finally died a few weeks back, so I picked up a cheap chest freezer from Home Depot and a temperature controller. It’s flipping awesome. I can fit 3 kegs in it (or 4 with some minor mods). Add that to the long list of things I should’ve done a long time ago.

  12. Congratulations on moving up to all-grain so quickly, we’re still on mini-mash — though I have bought a barley crusher for the fiance for Christmas present, and still need to hook up our Therminator.
    Your friend’s book/beer? You mean JP, or did you get Greg Koch’s “The Brewer’s Apprentice”?
    I agree on the yeast starter — don’t forget to use carbon filtration or campden tablets for your prep water as well, especially if your water system has chloraminated water. That’ll increase your yeast growth potential and increase pitching rate.
    Good luck!

  13. I did that. My serving fridge holds five kegs and has three faucets on the door. Then I needed a temperature-controlled environment for fermenting, so I added another fridge. 2 beer fridges to one food fridge seems like about the right ratio.

  14. December 12 is my birthday!! Yay for beer! So thanks for the heads up about Eagle Creek brew supply, just checked it out and the equipment prices aren’t bad and I can take the subway there easily. Perhaps with a little christmas money, I’ll be brewing again soon. And since you mentioned you love to cook in the show tonight, I invite you to check out my Food album on FB http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.389271273018.167526.515513018&type=3 Thanks for not being a dick :)
    Yours truly,
    the brewer “that’s what she said” chick from the largo 😛 (AKA Syd)

  15. I always love your homebrew stories. I don’t know why. I guess it’s seeing someone geek out so passionately over something they never knew they were in love with until they tried it.

  16. Beautiful writeup. I am complete jealous, because while I’ve built my own mash tun, I’ve hit a holding pattern on brewing because of the holidays…I plan to get serious before Christmas, however!
    Also, not sure if you remember, but, I had given you a Pumpkin Ale recipe a few months back – I certainly remember because I squeeeed in delight a little as you said you had printed it for your brewer’s journal! 😉
    Anyhoo, the resulting brew was spot on taste / spice wise – the spice amounts and techniques used were perfect. Unfortunately, we must have angered the carbonation gods, as the beer was very flat, even after bottle fermenting for a few extra weeks. Sad. Again, though, spice wise we were dead on, so, at least that knowledge can be used!

  17. Great post! I am sadly behind on my beer making and appreciate the chance to live vicariously. Would you mind sharing where you got your plans to make a mash tun? I’m not ready to start all grain brewing yet but I want to give it a try in the future and it sounds like the design worked well for you.

  18. This is actually a question about a twitter post… you said you cleaned out 20 gigs with the assistance of an app… WHAT APP?

  19. I used Omni Disk Sweeper to find the really huge nested folders. Then I identified what I needed and didn’t need. I moved a lot of stuff that I wanted to keep but didn’t need at my fingertips to an external drive, and then I deleted all sorts of stuff.
    The biggest thing I had was the Steam application support folder, at over 10GB. I don’t play Steam games on my Mac (I have an Alienware laptop for that) so I just didn’t need that anymore. The remaining 10GB was mostly photos and audio files that I could move to another drive.

  20. New goal: To become a good enough writer that I can make what might be otherwise mundane actually suspenseful. (“Ohhh, will he mess up? Will something break? WILL THE OG BE OFF!?!?”)

  21. That is sooooo cool. As someone who is just starting on the homebrew journey (visited my local homebrew shop this weekend, signed up for a class and bought my first kit), the emotion and joy in your post is exactly what I want to get out of this hobby. Thanks, I’m even more stoked now to start on my first batch!

  22. From the article title, I thought you were referring to something far more nerdy than the topic of beers. Still a good article, BTW. Would have been even better if it was about adventuring in your homebrew campaign. If you don’t know what I mean… I guess you are way cooler than I thought.

  23. You and your wife both get +1 Awesome Sauces: you for the brewing, her for being observant enough to make the connection. THAT is what successful marriages are made of!

  24. You dude rock so much!
    I have been eyeing HomeBrewing since my trip to Bogota on 2007, there is this one place that specializes on a red lager that is ten thousand dimensions of amazing.
    I just doubt I could find the ingredients here in Venezuela. maybe in 2012 I will try and follow the example Wheaton gave.
    OH also, i love your writing style.

  25. Thanks! Its now on my wishlist along with Greg’s book. Maybe this summer I will get a chance to take a crack at the recipe myself. In the meantime I’ll stick with extracts and partial mashes and do my best to relax and not worry.

  26. Jealous! I’m a huge Stone fan, have been for many years, ever since first finding Arrogant Bastard on the east coast. My whole kitchen is decked out in Stone collectibles, from a large bottle collection to taps and coasters and a delivery truck and signs, candles, light, large banner, over 20 glasses, etc. Just drank a new Black IPA. Amazing. So I can’t wait to hear your verdict on the 12th! Thanks for the great virtual documentary :-)

  27. I have a gallon of mead fermenting right now. I'm going to rack it once in about two weeks, let it clear for a week, then bottle it and get to waiting.

  28. Great write-up. It brought back memories of my early brews. If you should ever be interested in trading some homebrew, the Virginia Tech homebrew club would sure be both willing and appreciative.

  29. I think that would be awesome. Do you know what the laws are about all that? Is there a webpage with the legality and all that crap on it?

  30. It is illegal to send beer through the USPS mail. UPS does not mind people sending “yeast” samples. Strictly speaking, it’s not permitted, though generally accepted, for brewing competitions.

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