The time has come for my second attempt at brewing beer at home. This time I went with a Nut Brown Ale kit from All About Brewing. They have a pretty wide variety of kits to choose from and I seriously debated getting their Irish Red Ale kit as a sort of do-over from last time, but perhaps next time. This time I planned to dedicate myself to correcting as many of the wrongs, or things my inexperience told me were wrong, with the last batch. Not only was I going to sanitize all my equipment properly, but I told myself to read the instructions with a much keener eye. With these things in mind, I set to work.
First, I compared all of the equipment to the list included on the box to make sure it was all there. After confirming it was, I set to cleaning everything in the box. This cannot be stressed enough for anyone thinking about brewing their own stuff at home: do not assume things are clean out of the box or merely “good enough” with a simple rinse; clean anything that could come into contact with your brew. Use sanitizer, either the stuff that comes in the kit, or if the kit does not include any, just go purchase a food grade sanitizer. Star San is a popular choice, but there are others. It can come in two forms: pre-mixed and the powder you have to mix into water yourself, like making some kind of weird Kool-Aid (although not harmful if it touches stuff you eat or drink from, it is still not recommended you drink it straight.)
Once I was sure everything was clean, I moved on to the second step, which was to steep the grains. Now, this is the first place we messed up with our last brew, which brings me to my second recommendation: read all instructions CAREFULLY. In this step, you are not boiling the grains, but merely steeping them as with a tea bag in tea. Make sure you have a pot large enough to boil the amount of water appropriate to the amount of beer you want to end up with. This particular kit calls for 6 gallons of water, but I didn’t have a pot big enough for this, so I split a 5 gallon Sparkletts-style container between two pots, with about 3 gallons going into one pot and another gallon boiling in a smaller one alongside it.
This allowed me to steep the grains in water that got hot enough on an electric stove to get to 170 degrees in a reasonable amount of time (~1 hour). When it got to 170, I removed the grain bag (which smelled delicious, by the way) and added the second pot of boiling water to get as close to the original 4 gallons I had started with. I brought the earthy-smelling water to a boil, which took about another 20 or so minutes, took it off the heat, stirred in the malt extract that was included in the kit, and brought that back up to a boil. At this point, the mixture is called “wort”.
The malt step was kind of an adventure: I had to keep the canister of syrupy liquid in a bath of warm water to loosen it up and make sure I was able to get enough of the extract into the pot. Then I shook some hot water around the inside to get the last of it and…the canister exploded all over the kitchen. Yep, sticky, syrupy malt extract all over the place. Oh well- you live and you learn.
After it was at a boil again for 15 minutes, I added the bittering hops. The recipe called for a full 60 minute boil with the hops, but I like my beer less hoppy, so I decided to decrease the exposure of the hops. This kit came with a clarifying agent called a Whirlflock tablet. This helps to take any haziness out of the mixture. I added this tablet with about 5 minutes to go in the final boil.
While that was finishing up, I had a buddy watch the boil while I ran to the store to get some ice, as the next step was to cool the wort as quickly as possible. Last time, we used a chiller ring, but we didn’t have one for this brew, so the plan was to put the kettle in the sink and pack the sink with ice around the kettle. I figured direct contact with the metal sides of the kettle would transfer the heat pretty evenly. This process took much longer than I anticipated and about 30 minutes later I had it at 81 degrees. The instructions recommend 70-80 degrees, but I had an appointment in about 5 minutes, so I just wanted to get it done. I figured transferring the mixture to the primary fermenter would cool it down the rest of the way, anyway.
After transferring the 80-degree wort to the primary fermenting bucket, I added the yeast. The kit came with a packet of Safale US-05 yeast, which seems to be a pretty standard choice for making ales. I want to learn more about yeasts and maybe even culture my own someday. So, here is another step where I should have read more carefully, but in my rush, I did not… The packet is a dry yeast, similar to bread yeast, which means that I should have reconstituted it in 90-degree water for about 10 minutes before pitching it into the bucket with the wort. Well, I didn’t do that and just pitched the dry yeast straight into the bucket. This is what we did with our first brew and ended up with very carbonated beer (more on that in the third week).
It was at this point that I remembered something else I wanted to do this time that we had forgotten last time: to take what is called the ‘original gravity,’ which gives an idea of the potential alcoholic strength of the final brew. This measures the fermentable and unfermentable substances in the wort before fermentation. To do this, the kit came with an instrument called a hydrometer. It is a float or buoy with a scale printed on it that essentially compares the relative thickness of the liquid compared to just plain water. This brew came in at about 10% with this initial reading.
Then I wrapped the fermenting bucket in a towel to keep the temperature somewhat consistent. We’ll see what happens, but for now, as with much of the beer-making process, all I can do is wait and prepare for week two: secondary fermentation.