Tom Petty, you were right; the waiting really is the hardest part.
After hours of standing in front of a hot stove, my first batch of beer — a Broadway Brown Ale from Central Street Farmhouse — is locked into a bucket and out of my hands. Now, all I can do is keep it around room temperature and hope for a drinkable result.
My first foray into the brewing world started with washing — lots of washing. Cleanliness and sanitation are extremely important in brewing. Any stray wild yeast or microbe can change the taste or quality of your beer. In happier news, according to “The Joy of Home Brewing,” “There are no known pathogens, deadly microorganisms, that can survive in beer … so don’t worry about dying.” Phew.
The process of sanitizing everything that will come in contact with the beer — buckets, spoons, siphons, hydrometers, thermometers, pots, etc. — takes up more time than any other part of the process. A bleach-based solution will do the job, but Central Street Farmhouse provides brewers with a more environment-friendly powder that isn’t bleach-based.
After everything was washed, I filled the large pot that became my best friend for the next few hours with 1½-2 gallons of water, which I heated to 150 degrees.
Once the water reached the right temperature, I took the grain sock — a stretchy mesh netting — out of the beer kit and poured in the mixture of three crushed grains. Stores that sell brewing supplies usually will crush them for you, saving time and energy.
I tied the open end of the sock closed and put it in the 150-degree water. This made a grain tea, which I wasn’t brave enough to taste. It smelled like a mixture of chocolate and coffee, followed by a brief period where it smelled like wet dog. That odor soon subsided, and the remaining aroma was amazing and, I hope, a good in-dication of what this beer will eventually taste like.
After the grains steeped for 15-20 minutes, I removed the grain sock and turned up the heat.
After bringing the “beer tea” to a boil, it was time to add the malt extract, stirring as I poured it in. The extract is barley that has been processed into a soup; then most of the water content is evaporated, turning the extract into a sweet, thick syrup that makes everything it touches annoyingly sticky.
Now, this is where I’m worried I screwed something up. The instructions for this batch warned that after the extract dissolved in the boiling water, there would be a “hot break,” where the liquid foams up and “quickly rises to the top of the brew pot.” At this point, you have to control the temperature so the liquid doesn’t boil over and cause a mess.
Sounds dramatic. Well, I missed out on the excitement. A little foam formed on top of the liquid, but it never threatened my safety by rising. I’m not sure why this didn’t happen, but I hope the fact that the hot break never broke won’t affect the final product. Only time will tell. I cracked open a Sam Adams to ease the tension.
Then it was time to start a 60-minute timer and add the hops. This brew called for two types — Brewers Gold for bitterness and Willamette for flavor and aroma. The bittering hops spent all 60 minutes in the boiling brew, while the flavor and aroma hops were added with 15 minutes left. A sprinkle of Irish moss was added at this time as well to help “clear” the beer.
Once the 60-minute boil period ended, I put 3 gallons of cold water in a 5-gallon fermentation bucket and then dumped in the boiling contents of the brew pot (at this point called wort) — I somehow managed to avoid sending myself to the hospital during that step. I then filled the bucket to the 5-gallon mark with more cold water.
Now, things moved from cooking to science. I never liked science. It was time to take a hydrometer reading to get the starting gravity, which is a measure of the density of a liquid. The hydrometer floats in the wort, and the number that shows above the surface tells you the liquid’s gravity. The instructions for this batch said the brew should measure 1.045-1.055 on the hydrometer. My batch came in at around 1.040, less dense than it should have been at this point, probably because the liquid was too warm when I took the measurement. This density gives you an indication of what the alcohol content of your beer will be. More on that in a future column.
At this point, I poured the yeast on top of the wort. No need to stir; the yeast does its fermenting magic on its own. I put the lid and airlock — which allows fermentation gases to escape while keeping outside air out — on the bucket and sealed it tightly. I’d imagine this was like the feeling parents get when they send their kid off to college — liberating (because it’s out of your hands), yet worrisome (because it’s out of your hands).
After that, it was over — for a week at least. I found a spot for the fermentation bucket and checked from time to time to make sure the temperature remained between 60 and 75 degrees. Seven days after closing the bucket, I’ll have to siphon the beer into a second fermentation bucket, where it will stay for another seven to 10 days before bottling.
The anticipation might kill me before the beer gets its chance.
Next time, I’ll talk more about what goes into beer — the grains, malts, hops, etc. — what they do and how they work. I hope I’ll be able to bottle and enjoy my first batch by then. Or I’ll have to dump the unsalvageable results of my labor down the sink.
Either way, bring it on. Brew on.
Nick McCrea is a Bangor Daily News copy editor. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maine and a master’s degree in magazine, newspaper and online journalism from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. This occasional column will chronicle his first endeavor at beer brewing.
Brew attempt 1: Broadway Brown Ale (Central Street Farmhouse)
Malt extract — 2 cans Briess Golden Light malt extract
Grains — ¼ pound Thomas Fawcett Brown malt
¼ pound chocolate malt
¼ pound caramel 120 malt
Hops — 1 ounce Brewers Gold pellet hops
1 ounce Willamette pellet hops
Yeast — Safbrew S-33 (dry)
¼ teaspoon Irish moss