This post is the kick-off to our Domestic Arts Series. I began it when I was 8 months pregnant, and have finally finished it!
My sister & Joe have been together forever. Or practically forever. And Joe’s been brewing beer for quite some part of that forever. And we’ve all (except me when pregnant & nursing) been enjoying that beer for all of that part of the forever! I interviewed and photo-journaled Joe about his love of homebrew. I hope this inspires you to do your own! There are now three homebrew stores in the Metro–a good sign that this isn’t just a growing trend, it’s an established pastime.
Joe is experienced in homebrew. He originally chose Northern Brewer (with a St. Paul Grand Ave location and a new one open in Minneapolis) as his supplier because of a trusted friend’s recommendation, and hasn’t regretted it a minute. Given Joe and Bridget’s chic downtown living arrangements, brewing completely from scratch isn’t feasible. That’s only for monks in Europe with large monastic grounds, or people who live in houses with basements or garages, or who live in a commune with a commercial sized stove (us).
Why brew your own beer? Joe says you get a lot of beer, and a lot of fun. With a little bit of time on a Sunday afternoon, you can brew 2 cases of beer, pretty much cheaper than microbrew specialty beer, or comparable. You get a vast array of options, and you build up a supply of beer (which then they can share with people like us :).
And let’s be honest: people love his beer. The reactions range from “how did you do this?” to “can you bring some more over?” Well hopefully this article will answer the first question, but you’d have to work your way into his good graces to get an affirmative on the second.
1) A little background.
Mostly he brews ales and not lagers. In part due to not being able to refrigerate an enormous carboy that a logger requires to ferment, he also prefers the taste of ales. Working in the urban condo, it’s more practical. He finds there tends to be more diversity in the styles of the ales to play around with as well.
Procuring the equipment, it’s an investment, but pays out over time. The glass carboys are easier to clean and can’t scratch like the plastic buckets (if you scratch one of those, you’d never be able to get it really clean again). He doesn’t do kegs; he prefers bottling. You can give them away more easily, drink them more easily, and store them for a while and forget about them. Equipment costs for him maybe are $200 over the last few years of acquisition. Starter kits can be around $100. The beer kits themselves run $20-40, depending on the kit. If it has more special adjuncts or hops, it will be a little more expensive. Joe uses WYeast “smack” packs. You can make your own yeast packs, but usually if you’re going to do that you have to prep it a day or two in advance of brewing. The two types of commercially available yeast are liquid or dry. Liquid yeasts like the WYeast smackpacks are ready to go with only few hours’ advance prep. If you’re using dry yeast you need to prepare a yeast starter (similar to a sourdough starter for breadmaking) which usually needs a few days to get going.
Joe marked the carboy at the gallon mark with black electrical tape. This helps measure when you’re pouring. Don’t forget you need a cap for it, called an air lock which allows C02 produced by the fermenting yeast out, but doesn’t let any air or other airborne nasties (or cat hair) in). You want to encourage certain micro organisms to act on your beer, while discouraging others.
Yeast, Kit for Brew, Starter Kit, carboy, Stainless stock pot for brewing: 3 1/2 brew kettle (comes with your starter kit).
Extract brewing differs all grain brewing in several ways. Most beer is malted barley, but this kit provides for malted rye. When doing extract brewing, add a handful of grains for color & flavor in a little tea sock bag. The hops add preservative, and to counteracts the sweetness that you get from the malt & grains in general.
“Secondary Fermemtation” this is an optional step for beers with short fermentation periods — consult your kit directions but a rule of thumb for me is secondary fermentation is optional for any kit with a total production time of 4 weeks or less. Joe transfers to a second carboy and lets the chunks of yeast filter out. It helps create a clear product, and does help things mellow out a little bit. Some beers (like the Belgians) take a really long time in their second fermentation. For example, one beer Joe brewed took 6 months top to bottom to get it all the way to the end product. It continued to mellow out and change in flavor after that. It was even better after sitting longer than the initial 6 months.
Homebrew usually has sediment in the bottom. Your beer is flat when it’s done fermenting, so when you bottle you need to add more sugar (called “priming sugar). You actually get a third fermentation period then when it’s bottled. This is called bottle conditioning. The sugar creates a little CO2. If you opt to keg your beer instead of a bottle, the CO2 is provided by a CO2 canister.
3) Process of brewing.
The process starts with a large quantity of bottled spring water in a brew pot on the stove. Two & 1/2 gallons of water are added. Northern Brewer recipe here. Then add the crushed specialty grains in a tea sock & let steep for 20 minutes. This tea sock is a very large version of what you would brew your own loose tea in inside a tea cup. It adds a little color and flavor before we add the fermented stuff (which is basically syrup). He pulls the tea sock out (for compost) and lets the water come to a boil. Once it boils, he adds the malt extract, bring it back up to a boil, then add hops. It boils for an hour, cools, gets dumped in carboy, adds yeast, and then lets it sit while the yeast does its work. It could take 4-7 days.
Joe fills up the sink with hot water and lets the syrup sit in there to loosen up and then come out of the container better. He then adds it to the boiling water, stirring continuously as he pours. It goes back on the heat and boils for another hour. To get all the goodies out of the jug, he pours a little water back into the bottle, and then dumps it again.
He then adds the hops on a specific schedule according to the recipe.
The cooling process is one of the trickiest and pain-in-the-behindest parts of the entire process. In a downtown condo, your options are limited to a sink full of cold water & ice. Your goal is to cool the young brew as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, he’s busy sanitizing his equipment with the Five Star San. Anything that touches the beer is supposed to be sanitized (remember that part about encouraging only the micro-organisms that you want to.) So you add the sanitizer and water to the carboy, cleaning that baby out completely before you funnel the brew into it.
Then, fill ‘er up, swirl it around, add your yeast, & cap it off!
After a week or so, he knows when it’s done fermenting when the air lock bubbles at 30 second intervals. He times them like contractions (pregnancy insert!). Hydrometer readings will also do the trick to let you know the specific gravity (weight of the liquid). The latter method is more work, and Joe usually does the former. The hydrometer reading will help you know your percent of alcohol, which he bothers to do if he’s labeling & giving away.
4) Nota Benes.
The two most important steps to not screwing up your brew are: 1) sanitation and 2) temperature control. You want to create an environment that your preferred micro-organisms are the ones that take over and do the fermenting. If you have cross-contamination and then your beer will taste funky. You’re creating a big pot of yeast chow. You’re creating an environment that’s the best possible for microorganisms to go crazy. You want it to be the right ones. There’s a style that depends on wild yeast–and funkiness is welcome there. (Lambics, for example). The comparable idea in baking would be sourdough bread.
It bears mentioning that the more Varsity Level brewing, all-grain brewing, lagers, kegging are totally doable in the home environment. Provided you have the space/time/money. Joe has arrived at a process that works for the space he has to brew in.
Thanks, Joe, for the opportunity to document your brew!