Even more adventures in Homebrewing

Northern Brewer sells these recipe kits that aren't clones of commercial beers; they are the actual recipe from the brewery, using the same grains, hops, and yeast strains.

Today, I homebrewed one: a Surly Cynic Pro Series Kit.

Surly is a brewery in Minneapolis, and the Cynic is a Saison. What's a Saison? Well, allow Wikipedia to tell you:

"Saison" is French for season, because these ales were traditionally brewed in the autumn or winter for consumption during the late summer harvest for farm workers who were entitled to up to five litres throughout the workday during harvest season. Today they are brewed year round. As the saison style originated before the advent of refrigeration, Belgian brewers had to brew in autumn or winter to prevent the ale from spoiling during the storage period. After brewing, the ale was stored until the late summer harvest. Although now most commercial examples range from 5 to 8% abv, originally saisons were meant to be refreshing and thus had alcohol levels less than 3%. Because of the lack of potable water, saisons would give the farm hands the hydration they needed without the threat of illness.

Like most interesting beer styles, this one developed because there was a need for it. It persists because there is a different need.

One of the most important aspects of homebrewing is controlling the temperature of the fermenting beer. Too cool, and the yeast will go to sleep. Too hot, and the yeast will go crazy and produce all kinds of yucky flavours that are yucky. Also, yucky.

Because I don't currently have a big awesome refrigerator that I can use to control my fermentation temperature, I have to brew "in season" using yeasts that can tolerate warmer or cooler temperatures. That means in that I'm doing wheat beers and saisons right now (the #VandalEyesPA was an exception, because I convinced Anne to let me turn our guest bathroom into a 69 degree cold box for two weeks. Totally worth it.)

So the yeast I used with this beer is from Wyeast Labs. It's called 3522: Belgian Ardennes. It is happy from 65 to 85 degrees, so the 70-74 degrees I can keep a fermenting beer at in my office without much effort is going to be perfect.

The brew day was a delightful experience. Anne went to work early, and I ran up to the store to buy some water and a big bag of ice. Last night, I prepared my yeast so they'd be ready to go to work today. I talked to them whenver I walked past the packages on the kitchen counter: "Oh, you guys have no idea what you're going to get to do in a few hours!" and "I hope you're hungry, little yeasties!"

This isn't weird at all, I assure you.

So I took all my gear out onto the patio, and started heating up water for the Mash. The Mash is what it's called when grains are soaked in water to get all their sugars out. The water is collected after a thing called the Sparge, and that water — which is now full of tasty sugars and colored depending on the type of grain that was mashed — is brought to a boil and turned into beer.

It was really hot today, but not so hot that milk would be a bad choice, if you were into drinking milk, which I am not because milk is disgusting.


It was hot, and I decided that, since I was all alone in my backyard and nobody would be disturbed by the sight of me, I took my shirt off. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window, and I was surprised to not see a pudgy guy staring back at me. I guess working out three times a week, drinking less beer, and eating a really healthy diet is paying off. Go me.

I got the water to the temperature I needed, added it to the grains, stirred it, and then played Hungry Hungry Hippos for an hour while chemistry did its thing. I heated up some more water to do a thing called the Mashout (heating the water to a point where sugars stop coming out of the grains), then I did the Sparge.

This recipe does a neat thing called first wort hopping, which is where you put hops into the brew kettle before any heat is applied. I've never done this before, but it sounds really cool. Here's how master homebrew genuis John Palmer describes it:

An old yet recently rediscovered process (at least among homebrewers), first wort hopping (FWH) consists of adding a large portion of the finishing hops to the boil kettle as the wort is received from the lauter tun. As the boil tun fills with wort (which may take a half hour or longer), the hops steep in the hot wort and release their volatile oils and resins. The aromatic oils are normally insoluble and tend to evaporate to a large degree during the boil. By letting the hops steep in the wort prior to the boil, the oils have more time to oxidize to more soluble compounds and a greater percentage are retained during the boil.

Only low alpha finishing hops should be used for FWH, and the amount should be no less than 30% of the total amount of hops used in the boil. This FWH addition therefore should be taken from the hops intended for finishing additions. Because more hops are in the wort longer during the boil, the total bitterness of the beer in increased but not by a substantial amount due to being low in alpha acid. In fact, one study among professional brewers determined that the use of FWH resulted in a more refined hop aroma, a more uniform bitterness (i.e. no harsh tones), and a more harmonious beer overall compared to an identical beer produced without FWH.

The FWH I used were Styrian Golding, an awesome hop that I don't normally use because I make Pale Ales and IPAs, usually, with American hops. Styrian Golding is grown in Slovenia and has this fantastic, spicy, grassy aroma. It's really different from the American hops I usually use that have piney, floral, or citrus aromas and flavours.

I set all my timers, wrote down a bunch of notes in my journal, and turned on the Sonos. I always listen to music when I brew, and I keep notes about what I played because… um. Because of reasons. Today, I listened to Pink Floyd and Yes, because it just felt like a prog rock kind of afternoon.

Everything went off without a hitch. I didn't have any boilovers, and my dogs kept me company the whole time. I did get a little sunburned on my shoulders and neck, but I'll just take that like a badge of honour (Badge name: Stupid Wil Forgot To Put On Sunscreen.)

When you brew beer, you want to hit a number called Original Gravity. This number measures how much sugar and potential alcohol is in the wort (the wort — pronounced like the kid with the wooden leg in Diablo — is what your boiling mixture of barley and hops is called until you put yeast into it). Every beer has a Target Gravity, and the closer you get to the Target Gravity, the more likely you'll make the beer you wanted to make. The Target Gravity on the Cynic is 1.053, and I ended up at 1.052. That's close enough for me, and within the margin of error. I should finish with a beer around 5.2 or 5.2 percent alcohol, which will be a nice break from the 6.5% of #VandalEyesPA.

When the brew was done, I cooled my wort, poured it into a fermenting bucket, added just under a gallon of "top off" water to bring it up to five gallons, and pitched the yeast. 

"Okay, little yeasties!" I said to the first packet, "you guys have so much awesome sugars to eat! Go have fun!" 

I poured the yeast into the wort and got the second packet ready. It was so swollen, I was afraid it would explode, so I whispered to it: "Hey yeasties! Guess what? There's about 100 billion of your brothers and sisters in this bucket here, and I'm going to let you join their party. Just relax for a minute while I vent some of this pressure off…"

I gently tore a corner of the package and took a tiny blast of yeast to the face.

Go ahead and make your own Peter North joke here, gang.

"Okay, go hang out with your pals, and get to work!" I said. I poured the second packet into the wort, sealed the lid and stuck the airlock into the top. I wiped yeast off my face and put my hands on my hips.

I did my "I'm so very pleased with myself" move, and went to the patio to clean up from a successful and thoroughly enjoyable brewday.

My beer will ferment for about 2 weeks. Then I'll move it into a different fermenter to continue for another 2 to 4 weeks, depending on some things. Then, I'll bottle it in big bottles (because that seems like the right thing to do with a Saison) and let it condition for two weeks.

If everything goes according to plan, this should be ready to drink right around PAX, or just after, which is when it gets really hot here in Los Angeles… and is perfect Saison weather. 

29 thoughts on “Even more adventures in Homebrewing”

  1. The last beer I brewed was a saison, and it was both the first recipe I’d designed myself (based loosely on the mighty Saison Dupont), and the first time I’d done my own mashing (I’d only used extracts before that). So every word of this post was reminiscent of my own brewing experience, and just made me jealous that I was stuck at work reading this instead of brewing myself. Thanks for the vicarious thrills and inspiration! (And damn you for keeping your excellent-sounding saison on the other side of the country…)

  2. One thing that can free you from following the seasons for temperature control without the expense of a full blown refrigerator is to get a cooler that’s just a bit bigger than your fermentor. Put the fermentor in and fill the rest with sanitizer (or anything else that can help keep the water from going funky, like a bit of bleach). By itself, this will keep the wort temperature more steady than the fermentor being just in the air, but you can also keep an eye on the temp with a fermometer strip (I think Northern Brewer carries them. I know MoreBeer does.) and toss in ice as needed to keep the temps down. I once did a California Common this way and kept the fermentation temperature pretty close to 60 even though the room around it was more like 70.

  3. Just tried some Surly brews at All Points North in Duluth this weekend. Good stuff! I’m thinking of looking into a home system and have taken some hints from your brewing posts, not the least of which is being careful venting the yeast packets.
    P.S. Go you!

  4. Yikes, Typepad’s Facebook Connect needs some work. Ummm… in beer related things, I am eager to do some home brewing. I might try it soon!

  5. I am assuming you did not add top off water after you measured your gravity, and it is just the storytelling that is out of order. But I am wondering why you are adding top off water to an all grain brew. I am having trouble hitting my target volume when I brew, but have been adjusting my sparge as I think my boil off and trub loss are high with this new kettle.
    I had an old chest freezer in my basement left by the previous owner, and put a 2 stage temp controller on it. You may want to consider one of them as I see old chest freezers of Craigslist for like $50, then you no longer have a temp related seasonal brew issue, and can consider doing a lager.
    I just did a saison as the first use of the temp controller and my first saison. I took the fermentation from 65 starting up to 80 where it is now, and smells great. Will bottle it after I return from BARGE next week, which you should consider coming back to play some poker at BARGE.

  6. By itself, this will keep the wort temperature more steady than the fermentor being just in the air, but you can also keep an eye on the temp with a fermometer strip , I think Northern Brewer carries them.
    MCX tips

  7. Hi Wil! I really enjoy your blog posts on your home brewing adventures.
    I’m new to home brewing myself. My wife and I started the hobby together. We just finished brewing our 3rd batch a few weeks ago. It’s a Duvell clone.
    Since it’s a high alcohol beer (8.5%), it was recommended to use a yeast starter, so we made our first yeast starter. It was a lot of fun (like making a separate little batch of beer). I used yeastcalc.com to figure out how much yeast I needed. I ended up doing a 2-stage yeast starter.
    You might want to look into making starters. There’s a pretty good guide here: http://www.homebrewtalk.com/f39/how-make-yeast-starter-pictorial-76101/ I think you’d really enjoy it, and you’ll save some money on yeast, as you can just buy one package and grow your starter to the cell count you need.
    And you’ll have more time to talk to the yeasties!
    (The Duvell clone uses Styrian goldings hops too. They smell heavenly!)

  8. I was at Surly in Minneapolis a couple of summers ago. They’ve got some tasty beers. One of their pint glasses is currently containing a beverage on my desk.
    Unrelated (and possibly irrelevant,): I used to wait on Peter North at Twin Palms in Newport Beach. While he was a very good tipper, he (thankfully) never gave me a blast to the face.

  9. I live in the Twin Cities, and love Surly. I thought about bringing some to you at w00tstock a couple of years ago, I guess I should have!
    Cynic is a great choice, enjoy!

  10. I live in Styria, so I just have to comment now 😉
    I haven’t tried homebrewing, and it’s not on my to do list to be honest, but in spring i do enjoy to cook with hops sprouts (harvested myself).
    Good luck with your newest beer and my native hops!

  11. mmmmmm, beer.
    There is something even tastier about a beer you make yourself. I find I have a greater appreciation for beer now and find I’m really proud when one of my recipes turn out really well.

  12. Have you ever considered using beer, wine, or even champagne yeast to make sourdough bread with? A lot of sourdough baking enthusiasts do that. The different strains of yeast give different flavor characteristics to sourdough breads. You can even use a bread machine to make sourdough bread these days! I know, because I’ve just published an eBook on the subject! It’s called, “Bread Machine Sourdough,” and is available in both Amazon Kindle and EPUB (for the Nook eBook reader)formats. Right now, you can find it on either Amazon or Lulu, bit it should also be available on the iBookstore and Barnes and Noble before long.

  13. Okay, the home brews sound fantastic! Maybe I’ll have to test that out and see if there are some beers I’ll enjoy on a more regular basis.
    In other news, just thought I’d share a little exchange between my 11yo nephew and myself last night as I was introducing him to the “The Two Live Crew Job” episode of Leverage for the first time.
    Him: Who’s that?
    Me: Uncle Willy. I mean, Wil Wheaton. Remember in Stand By Me? [one of his FAVE movies]
    Him: That’s him? Wil Wheaton’s got a cool first name.
    Me: Yeah, but his only has one l.
    Him: Only one? So I’m twice as cool because I have two?
    Me: For that comment? Yeah, buddy.
    Thought you might enjoy that because his mom and I are totally turning him into a geek worthy of being one of Uncle Willy’s fans.

  14. I live about 6 blocks from Surly’s plant & have been there a few times. I am not a fan of their “hop-forward” stuff. If I wanted to eat a pine cone I’d have lunch with Euell Gibbons.
    But I do love Widmer Brothers Blond Citra Ale – which is very hoppy but the citra hops imparts a nice citrus tang instead of turpentine. I have been fooling with a recipe for it for the last year & can not quite get the nice mellow quality they created. But the beer is very drinkable so even the “failed” experiments are worth the trouble.

  15. Brewed a massively hopped double IPA earlier this summer. Added some ginger and honey. It is excellent (my homebrew krewe agrees) and clocks in at around 8.5 – 9%. One bomber and you can definitely feel it. Will be brewing my holiday Barleywine soon so it will be ready for December.

  16. Can’t say jack about the brewing, because I don’t know jack, but I will say that you looked absolutely fine on Eureka shirtless. That scene had my husband and I seriously ROTFLing!

  17. Once again I’ll say that I really enjoy your brewing posts. How did the beer that you and Anne made together turn out? I just gave Northern Brewer’s site a quick browse and I am happy to see that they have competitive pricing and shipping like Austin Homebrew Supply. I’ll have to try the saison kit and a couple of others that they have.
    I keep my house at about 70-72 degrees year round and have had no fermentation problems with ales, but I do need to get a spare fridge for lagering.
    I have several good summer beers aging or on tap right now, so I’ve been concentrating on wine making for the past month or so.
    I’ll start brewing my winter beers in the next few weeks so that they will be ready for the “cold season” when outdoor temps may drop as low as 30 degrees here:)

  18. Great and very informative post, Wil Wheaton! I’ve never tried FWH, but will definitely research it some more and see if I can incorporate it into my skill-set.

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