Sunday, 29 December 2013

Black Forest Stout Comes Under Scrutiny...

Looking back to my last brewing attempt my ambition maybe outweighed my skill, with a half a dozen ingredients and none standard adjuncts it should have been a disaster, but there are occasions where inexperience and naivety can lead to something interesting. When I posted my brewday write up I wasn't expecting the attention it had received by the kind Twitter folk, some of which were bloggers of some of my favorite beery sites, such as the guys at Beers Manchester and The Beer O'Clock Show. I decided to fire off a couple of bottles their way, just to say thanks and maybe get a little feedback, I certainly wasn't expecting a full on review, but that's exactly what I got! Even better that my humble little beer was included in Beers Manchester's #12BeersofXmas roundup, rubbing its tiny shoulders with some of the big brewers out there! Thankfully it was a positive review and a huge confidence boost! 

Slainte! ;)

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Bottling the Christmas Stout, Bah Humbug...

With the current cold weather, the fermentation process for this brew has been a bit more of a hands on task. In an attempt to keep the temperature within the yeast's sweet spot, I've had brew belt on and off, made the FV a jacket out of insulation wallpaper and moved the whole thing to various different rooms. Thankfully my attentiveness paid off as my microscopic friends had worked their magic and after a couple of weeks the beer was ready for bottling. 

As this was the first recipe born from my booze-addled mind, I wanted to give it a little more attention than my previous attempts. So, with that in mind, the brew deserved to be contained in proper glass vessels, instead of the plastic bottles that came supplied with my starter kit. I'd spotted a cracking deal being offered by Majestic – 12 bottles of Anchor Steam for just shy of £20 (that's £1.66 a bottle)! Not only is it a very palatable beer, it's sold in quirky bottles which I considered perfect for the stout. As well as the nifty bottle I would need a sweet label, especially as I'm going to debut the beer at the December Macc Homebrew meetup! With me being a bit of grump, 'Bah Humbug' was an obvious name choice and the geek inside has an affinity with Grumpy Cat, the two marry up nicely! The missus is a bit of a whizz with the old Photoshop, so I enlisted her help with the cutting out of the miserable moggy, along with a few layout tips. Ten minutes later we had whipped up Lo-Fi label...ding!

With the packaging sorted, the festive brew was due a gravity test. This was quite a momentous occasion as this would be the first opportunity to taste my creation. With a gravity of 1.010 jotted down I emptied the specimen into a glass and nervously took a sip. My taste spuds were greeted by a subtle introduction of sweet chocolate, which pleased me as I had actually wanted to throw some cocoa nibs into the boil for some extra choccyness (is that even a real word?). Unable to source any nibs locally, I was pleased that the cocoa notes had managed to push through the malt and the crystal added enough sweetness to balance out the bitterness. So far so good! A second later the cherries burst on to the scene throwing sour shapes all over the place. Crikey, I wasn't expecting that! This highlighted something I'd neglected to do during the brew - taste the damn cherries! I had no idea whether they were sweet or sour, but I assume that this sourness was from the cherries and that the beer hadn't just become infected by any wild yeasts. Either way, even at this stage, the brew is very drinkable and it's at least on trend for 2013. Let's see how it tastes in a few weeks time.

The weekend had arrived and I took a second sample. There had been no movement with the gravity, which meant the beer's ABV came to 5.25% – a little shy of my original target, but still decent enough. I bottled the beer and figured out, that due to my improved brewing efficiency, I ended up with probably a litre and a half more than my previous effort... result!

BAH Humbug!
Having seen what happened to the labels we'd applied at the Brew School I thought it best not to print them using our inkjet printer at home, not unless I was looking for a tie-dyed effect. So instead, I printed them on the massive black and white copy printer at work. With the labels produced and cut to size, I set about sticking them to the bottles using a saucer of milk and a pastry brush, and I have to admit, I was pleased with the final product. Lets just hope the beer inside does the labels justice! 

Monday, 25 November 2013

Yeast, Always the Bridesmaid...

I've spotted an interesting blog post doing the rounds on Twitter posted over on Boak and Bailey's Beer Blog, in which they take a look at Brewdog's Unleash the Yeast, a pack of four identical beers fermented with four different yeasts. The idea being to highlight the fact yeast can have as much of an impact on the overall flavour of a beer than just the malt and hops. The overall conclusion was, whilst the base beer wasn't the best, the exercise did clearly show the differences between each yeast. At the premier Macc Homebrew Club meetup Red Willow's Toby McKenzie mentioned he did a similar exercise for a talk at 2012's Indy Man Beer Con. I think in the new year I may look at doing a few micro brews with different yeasts just for my own brewing curiosity...

BIAB #2 - Black Forest Stout...

Now that I've had a bash at making a single malt, single hop brew with my new BIAB kit, it was time to plan my own beer from scratch. With it coming up to Christmas it made sense to brew something festive, but instead of going for the usual spiced Christmas ales, I decided to go for something that might resemble a black forest gateau; something dark, thick and sweet with chocolatey and berry undertones. Mmmm!

I set about scanning various recipes for stouts and porters for the blend of grain types used. This is where The Complete Homebrew Handbook came in handy as I had actually sampled some of the darker beers mentioned in its very pages and so I had a reference to go by. In the end I went for Maris Otter as my base grain, crystal and chocolate malt, with some flaked oats to give the beer a bit of body. Given the black forest gateau theme, I was obviously going to need some cherries. The original plan was to use fresh cherries, that is until I stumbled across these Black Cherries with Kirsch by Opies. Perfect, the hard work had already been done for me (they were pitted) and I figured the addition of Kirsch will give the beer extra richness.

Whilst I was in the planning stages of this beer, Ruthless, a barrel aged sour cherry chocolate stout, popped up on the board at Red Willow. I decided to tap Toby McKenzie for any tips on brewing with cherries, his advice was 'use more than you think is necessary in the boil'. I originally intended to use one jar of the Opie cherries, but with the expert advice I opted for two. Surely nearly 800 grams of cherry goodness would be enough for a 11 litre batch, right?

Now I just needed to source a hop that would complement the fruity beer without overpowering it. I scoured the web reading dozens of hop descriptions and the one that stood out for me was Willamette. Described as spicy and fruity with earthy tones it sounded ideal to me! With ingredients set, I put an order in at The Malt Miller and commenced the fine tuning of the recipe using Beer Engine.

I wanted this to be a strong beer, so I decided to up the grain content a little from my last brew. The two cotton sacks supplied with the stove top kit were quoted to hold 1.5 Kg and I wanted to go for a 4 Kg mash, an extra 500 grams extra per sack. I also decided to lower the water volume a little from 2.5 litres per Kg of grain to 2.4 litres, just to make the wort a little more concentrated. Beer Engine was telling me the projected ABV would be around 8.1%, just the strength I was looking for.

The weekend had arrived and so had my parcel of ingredients, the #brewday was on! With my recipe planned it was time to input some figures into the Massive Calculator and find out  my target volume and strike temperatures. As the grain had been sat on the back of a truck for most of the day I increased it by a couple of degrees for good measure.

The glorious ingredients.
Then, with the aid of my new electronic scales, I began weighing out the grain, but as I started filling up the first sack it soon became apparent that I was probably going to struggle with that extra kilogram. I made a decision to cut 500 grams of the Maris Otter and as the volume of Chocolate Malt looked a bit much, I also scaled this back by 50 grams too. With the recipe changed, I amended the details in Beer Engine which reported that the ABV would now be around 6.9%, still pretty respectable.

With the grain measured out and ready for action, I filled up the stock pot with the required amount of liquor and submerged the sacks, which again highlighted I was maybe pushing it at even 3.5 Kg as it was a pretty tight squeeze in there! I eventually managed to get both sacks settled and gave the grain a good stir, using a large wooden fork instead of a spoon as I didn't want any dried lumps of grain surprising me later on when I emptied the bags out. I think if I'm going large with the mash for future brews I need to invest in some new cotton sacks that are maybe a bit wider.

With the mash on it was a good time to get the rest of my ingredients prepped. I opened the vacuum sealed pack of Willamette and gave it a good sniff, my eyes lit up — I'd definitely made the right choice. My nose was treated to a subtle spicy aroma with fantastic biscuit and currant notes scented in the background. I could have eaten the damn things raw! I weighed two lots of hops, 20 grams for the full boil and a further 10 grams to add five minutes from the end. Time to sort out my main ingredient, the cherries. I emptied the jars into a sieve over a bowl to separate the cherries from the Kirsch with a plan to boil off some of the alcohol as it was pretty potent! To try and maximise the flavour from the cherries I chopped them using scissors and added them to the hop sack along with the first batch of Willamette.

The hops and cherries.
With the mash done I squeezed as much wort out of the grain sacks as possible into the stock pot and did the same with the sparge water in the FV. Unlike my first effort, instead of merging the two, I poured the sparge water into two additional pans on the stove in a effort to get up to the boil before the new year kicked in. This worked a treat as the wort was bubbling away within 30 minutes. I threw in 100g of dark brown sugar, the boiled Kirsch and the first sack of adjuncts. 

With five minutes left on the boil I added a quarter of a Protofloc tablet with the second sack of hops and submerged the chiller coil ready for the cooling process. As with my previous effort I hooked up the chiller to a hose pipe connected to an outside tap, which cooled the wort down to 24 degrees in around 15-20 minutes. Thankfully this time there wasn't a whole lot of sediment so not much wort was lost on the transfer over to the FV. The gravity was a little lower than I initially predicted (1.05, instead of 1.073), which was a little disappointing, but I suppose if the end product tastes great then that was main objective sorted. With nothing left to do I pitched the yeast, good old Safale US-05, and retired the FV to the corner of the kitchen. 

So, as far as my first proper attempt at brewing, it didn't go according to plan. The increase in grain and the tight squeeze in the pot had a knock on effect to the efficiency and thus I ended up with a much lower gravity than expected. Next time, if I want a stronger brew, I will stick to a 3 Kg limit and lower the liquor volume. However, I was massively more efficient throughout the whole process and managed to cut the brew time down by at least a couple of hours. I expect my next attempt will be even tighter...brew #3 here I come!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Top Marks for Brew School...

So, having successfully brewed a kit with acceptable results, it was time for the next stage - the full mash! It's all very well reading everything you possibly can about the brewing process, but becoming hands on was the way forward... oh and maybe a little tutelage from an expert wouldn't go amiss.

With this in mind I decided to see what courses were available, if any. A quick search on the web soon displayed loads of results, but one in particular caught my attention. It was a one day course held by a local(ish) company by the name of Hartingtons, based in Bakewell (of the tart fame), who run a plethora of mouthwatering artisan foodie courses. It's tutored by 'brew meister' Paul Taylor, who heads up the lab at Murphy & Son, a company which, if you don't already know, provides all kinds of kit and services for the brewing industry and home brewers alike. He is also a founding member of the Nottingham Brewers Group and on the judging panel at the SIBA National Beer Championship. There was no denying the guy had credentials, so I slapped down some hard earned cash and booked the missus and I on the course.

My idea was to attend the course, soak up the knowledge and then purchase all the kit required to tackle a full brew. However, my eagerness got the better of me and I ended up buying one of Massive Brewery's stove-top kits and now have a successful brew in the FV doing its thing. Whether or not it turns out OK, I don't know, but at least I wasn't entering the classroom totally green.

Home grown hops...
The day of the course arrived and it was an early start for the drive over the tops of the Peak District to picturesque Bakewell, bleary eyed we made it to Hartingtons in one piece. The course kicked off with an introduction from our tutor, Paul, who spoke about what his job entails at Murphy & Son, his homebrew history and what to expect from the day's proceedings. Before he got stuck into the brew he talked us through the process of making beer -  the equipment, the ingredients and the recipe he was going to follow, which was a pale ale with hops picked from his very own garden. This brought to our attention a handy piece of brew designing software called Beer Engine, which allows you to input your ingredients and it will output your projected ABV, colour, required liquor volumes, etc., and then to save it for future reference. Something I will definitely be making use of for future brews.

With the fine details noted it was time to get a mash on. A volunteer weighed the grain and added it to the mash tun, already filled with the required volume liquor at the correct temperature (increased by a couple of degrees as the grain had been sat in the boot of Paul's car and it was a rather chilly day).

With nothing left to do at this stage, Paul discussed the quality of water, obviously the biggest ingredient of a beer, but one I really hadn't given much thought about. It was interesting to learn how the water supply from your tap can affect the general make up of a beer, and that pretty much water from anywhere in the UK, whether it's soft or hard, will need some kind of chemical assistance to get the most out of it. Alkalinity, Calcium, Chloride, Sulphate... the science is too elaborate to write about here, but it's worth reading up on if you want to tighten up your brews. We were told about a product named DWB, a mixed compound that, according to Murphy & Son, will 'alter the ionic balance and produce beers with the correct flavor and mouth feel', and who doesn't want that from their beers? Furthermore, you can send a sample of your water to their labs and they will advise of the amounts to use. It's relatively inexpensive, for both the service and the DWB, so it will definitely be something I'll look into for future brews.

With the chemistry lesson over it was time to sparge the mash with the recommended volume of water. This wasn't anything elaborate and didn't involve the use of any sparging contraptions, instead just simply adding water to the mash tun, giving it a stir, draining it off, adding it to the kettle and repeating until the target volume was hit. With the kettle now full it was just a case of waiting for it to reach the boil, a perfect time to break for lunch.

Lunch and refreshments were all included in the price of the course, and as you would imagine for a school based around artisan food stuffs, there were a nice selection of cheese, meats, pies and other treats to tuck into. With some time to spare, myself and the missus took a stroll admidst the stunning scenery and more importantly, to buy a Bakewell pudding (not tart!)... it would have been rude not to! This wasn't a particularly difficult endeavour considering where we were, and it turns out the baker who made our pudding also runs a baking class at Hartingtons. Upon our return to the classroom kitchen we were hit by an aromatic wall of malt and hops...Mmmmmm lovely.

With our hunger satisfied it was time to get back to learning. We were getting close to the end of the boil and so it was time to throw the final batch of hops in and immerse the chiller coil, along with a quarter of a Protafloc tablet to assist with the clarity of the beer. There are points of the brewing process where there's not a lot happening so Paul filled this time with anecdotes of malfunctioning immersion coils spraying water around his kitchen ceiling and FVs spilling their malty load on his garage floor leading to a sea of fungus!

With the boil now complete the chiller was attached to the tap and cold water began working it's way around the copper coil, cooling the wort down in preparation for the yeast to be safely pitched. During this time we discussed different yeasts, how they come packaged (dried, live, smackpack, etc.) and how they can affect the flavour of the brew, again something which I hadn't put much thought into yet. Paul was originally going to pitch some Nottingham Ale Yeast, which he told us is the most popular yeast amongst home brewers as it's fast acting and leaves a clear beer. However, this yeast required activating in water before hand which he had forgotten to do, so we went with Safale US-05 (the same yeast I used in my BIAB efforts) which could be pitched directly in the wort. With the beer successfully transferred to the FV and the yeast working its magic, that was the end of that. Time for an afternoon break.

During our break we did some blind taste tests from a handful of commercial beers and made some judging notes. The highlight was Thornbridge's excellent Imperial Russian Stout - St Petersburg, a popular favourite with all the attendees (I saw this one coming as I spied them covering the label up) and we were pretty much united in our distaste of Wychwood's doubt a group with good taste!

Obviously, as we had only just put the beer in the FV it was far from ready for consumption. Luckily for us Paul had the spoils from his previous brew school session, a pale ale with 5 'new world' hops, for us to bottle, label and take home. As you can see from the photo our the labels didn't survive the journey home.

We found the course to be very informative and it was useful for me to watch an experienced homebrewer run through the whole process. All-in-all it was a thoroughly enjoyable day, and what better way to end such a great day in Bakewell than with a slice of pudding and a glass of Thornbridge's Wild Swan! 

The Brew School is a relatively new educational establishment, having only opened its doors in September of this year, but already it seems to be gathering steam, with the likes of Murphy & Son getting on board and the sponsorship of Jim's Beer Kit lending credability. On top of the beer brewing course mentioned in this article, they also run a microbrewery course, which covers everything you would need to know to set up your very own brewery. This has recently been expanded to a three day course to include a tour around the local brewery at Peak Ales and the opportunity to quiz the folk who have already gone through the process of turning professional.

Many thanks to the folk at Hartingtons for the use of the photos!

UPDATE: Since attending the course Hartingtons have expanded their beer brewing courses massively with a dedicated Brew School covering all aspects of brewing and the industry, tutored by some seriously experienced folk! 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

BrewFist MTB: Smacking you up'side the head....

Although it's not long been open, the Red Willow bar is already doing good work for the beer drinking community. Not only is it the venue for the newly formed Macclesfield Homebrew Club, due to commence next week, but it's also going to be hosting numerous Meet The Brewer events throughout the year. The first meet took place on a cold Tuesday night in November with ace Italian brewer BrewFist

The evening kicked off with an introduction of the Italian beer scene by Giulio from Atlas Brands, the British distributor of some of finest brews from a country that is largely known for its wine production. There is a scene there, not a massive one, but it is gathering steam and recently I've sampled some damn fine brews from the likes of Toccalmatto and Birrificio Italiano. With the background set it was time to kick things off with our host - Pietro Di Pilato, founder and head brewer at BrewFist. The plan was to sample six of his beers and he would give a short talk about each one (as is the case with these MTB events). So enough chit-chat, lets get on with the drinking!

Terminal Pale Ale - Pale Ale (3.7% ABV)

Marketed as a session ale due to the low ABV, this little number was very light, with great fruity flavours created by the mix of Citra and Summer hops. The beer was named to keep in theme with the brewery's own airport themed bar - Terminal 1.

Caterpillar - Pale Ale (5.8% ABV) 

This is a collab beer with Danish gypsy brewer Beer Here. Pietro told us that the first attempt at this brew turned into a bit of a mistake, but it ended up selling very well and they stuck with it. If this beer is a mistake then I hope to God I royally screw up my attempts at homebrewing! This is their 2nd bestselling beer after their flagship Spaceman IPA. Apparently they caused some offence with a family-friendly retailer in Australia with regards to the weed smoking caterpillar on the label. I've sampled this beer before and really rated it, everything about it is just so subtle and mellow. There's some slight spiciness that comes through, which we're told comes from the rye rather than the hops.

Czech Norris - Walker Imperial Pils (6.7% ABV)

Apparently the best beer known to man is brewed with a single drop of Chuck Norris' blood, but as it's impossible for him to bleed no one has ever made it. This is BrewFist's vision of what said beer would taste like, and it's probably not far off. The name comes from the use of Czech hop - Saaz, and with a name like that this brew demands to be sampled! They initially had a bit of trouble getting this tipple into the US, not that there were any objections to the Chuck Norris reference, but the fact the label features the Czech flag! Silly Americans! The beer is sweet with honey tones that really start to come through with the more you drink. I'm not normally a pilsner fan, but this was very palatable.

Heimdall - Galaxie Saison (7.6% ABV) 

This is another collab brew, this time with German brewer Freigeist. It's a fresh beer that's more hoppy than an average saison, making good use of the fruity flavours of the galaxy hops, with an essence of spice lurking in the mix too. This one is supposedly very popular in the US of A.

Fear - Chocolate Milk Stout (5.2% ABV)

One of the first four core beers BrewFist started out with. Pietro told us that Italians are afraid of dark beers and the name came from the Iron Maiden track "Fear of the Dark". There's nothing to be afraid of here. It's a lovely, rich, chocolatey stout that holds its own against the other big chocolate stouts already out there. Apparently buying pure lactose (a plain white powder) in any great quantity in Italy arouses suspicion as it's also commonly used to cut cocaine! FACT!

Green Petrol - Black IPA (8.2% ABV)

We end the session with a big hitter. This beauty was as black as my soul and hopped to the max with a real lingering after taste. Once again the guys had problems in the US with the name, as it raised some kind of confusion whether it actually contained petrol or not, but at 8.2% it's probably potent enough to at least power a Lambretta. This is the lowest selling beer in of their range, but then it is a beast of a drink!

. . .

As the session drew to a close Toby of Red Willow announced that he will be working with Pietro on a collab brew the very next day, a Red Pale Ale, which will be available on the bar as soon as it's ready for consumption. I shall be first in line!

Drunken Blurry Cam.
Giulio, Pietro & myself.
What became apparent with the more drinks we consumed was that BrewFist is a very competent brewer that enjoys to put their twist on each style, but at the same time remaining subtle. I spoke with Giulio about this and he stated that because Italy doesn't have a history of beer, no one feels bound down by styles therefore allowing the freedom to run with it without aficionados turning their noses up.

The missus then turned up with a half of Burocracy, another one of their fine ales (a really hoppy IPA), and I seized the chance to have a chat with Pietro. Obviously being a homebrewer I wanted to know if he could offer any advice to someone that might want to brew for a living, but he doesn't have homebrew background, instead learning his trade working for Fullers in the UK, but what he did say is that it's a lot of hard work and there's more cleaning involved that you would imagine!

It was a brilliant night with some fabulous beers from a top brewer, quite an act to follow, but I've already ear wigged who is possibly lined up for the next MTB event and if it comes to fruition, let me tell you, it'll be a doozy! Stay tuned...

Update: Another decent write up on the night can be found over on Beersay.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Small Kit, MASSIVE Brewery...

So I've successfully produced beer from a kit and whilst the results weren't mind blowing, it was alcoholic and tasted like beer, so I was somewhat pleased with my first steps into the brewing world. However, I'm never going to make great beer without getting down to the nitty-gritty with grain and hops. I have a scientific mind and I like to know what all the ingredients are doing and how they interact to produce the finished product. I was itching to get going, but I knew I'd need to invest in some extra equipment. Purely for convenience everything was pointing me in the direction of Brupak's range of homebrew kits, specificially their modified cooler box mash tun and electric boilers. However, being limited on space in the house I did wonder where all this kit was going to live (as did the wife), shame there wasn't a kit out there that was a little more compact. That's when I stumbled upon a couple of blog articles over on broadfordbrewer talking about brew in a bag (BIAB), which brought my attention the "10 LITRE, ALL-GRAIN, STOVE-TOP, BREW KITS" by Massive Brewery

This kit included everything I would need (and more) to do a full grain brew, and all packaged in a 12x12" square box! Bloody perfect! The author of broadfordbrewer is the chap behind Northern Monk's first few beers (for the love of God you must try Strannik!), so with that kind of brewing calibre I felt confident that this was going to be a decent setup and proceeded to place my order. Essentially, what this kit does is allow you to mash and boil in the same vessel as all the ingredients are brewed in bags...simple! Also, as it's half the volume of my other kit, it allows for a quicker turn around, which is ideal for learning and experimental purposes.

It's arrived!
So with order submitted I set about constantly refreshing the Parcel Force tracking page, eagerly awaiting the delivery of my new kit. During this time I decided to refrain from shaving, in an attempt to grow a brewers beard and give myself a fighting chance with my first full grain brew. After much beard stroking my parcel arrived and everything was present and accounted for (check out Massive Brewery for a full list of what's included). The ingredients included in the kit were standard Maris Otter malt and Phoenix hops, a good dual purpose hop, which is perfect for a beginners brew. So with the kit in my possession I decided Sunday was to become my #brewday.

When the fateful day arrived I began preparation for the task ahead. With the aid of the handy spreadsheet put together by Steve at Massive Brewery, I inputted the supplied grain weight and it spat out my target volumes and strike temperatures, very useful for a newbie such as myself. So with a strike temp of 72°C advised, I set about filling up the stock pot with 7 litres of boiling water from the kettle and half a litre of cold water just to knock the temperature down a little. This took it to around 74°C, so a couple of stirs later and it was ready. I threw the grain into the two cotton sacks provided and submerged them in the water, giving the grains a good stir to make sure there were no dry lumps (more on that later!), I again checked the temperature. Steve's calculations were bang on, it was just shy of 65°C. With everything set, there was nothing else to do at this stage, I put the lid on the pot and set the cooker timer for 60 minutes.

We're mashin'
Whilst the mash was mashing, I set about weighing out my glorious hops. Unfortunately I only had a set of standard cheap kitchen scales which aren't particularly acurate for measuring low weights (note to self, buy digital scales). The dial pointed to around 30 grams marks, so I split the hops 16-14 and put them in the two supplied hop sacks ready for throwing into the wort later. With 10 minutes left on the clock I put the kettle on and starting filling up the FV with the recommended volume (6.25ltr at 80°C) of sparge water. Just as I reached the correct volume the cooker chimed and I pulled out my mashed sacks of soggy grain one-by-one, squeezing as much wort out as I could through a collander over the stock pot and then transfered them to the sparge water for another brief soak. At this point I put the hob on under the stock pot in an attempt to give the boil process a bit of a head start. The grain sacks both received another good stir and squeeze and the resultant wort was then poured into the stock pot for the boiling stage of the process. One thing I didn't anticipate was how long it would take this to get this bad boy up to a rolling boil! It tooks hours, and you know what they say about a watched pot? Eventually it started bubbling away and I could throw in my first batch of hops (the 16 gram bag).

Hip-hop, don't stop...
With another hour on the clock it was time to make sure the FV and any equipment I was going to use at the final stage were clean, so I filled up the tub with warm water, plenty of steriliser and threw in a sieve and a pair of metal tongues. This time I was a bit more relaxed about the whole sterilisation process.

The kitchen looked like a bomb site, so I thought I'd better do a bit of clearing up before the wife returned from her travels. I began by emptying my spent grain bags and it was then, like the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, a big ball of dry grain tumbled out into the bin! Argh! I had stirred those grains like I had OCD, but I must have been just moving that lump around, hopefully it won't have too much effect on the final brew. Ahh well, this was always going to be a trial run and I've learnt a valuable lesson!

Five minutes from the end of the boiling process it was time to add the second batch of hops and slowly immerse the cooling coil (so not to stop the boil) so that it is sterilised before the chilling process begins. Having washed the coil earlier I figured it would a bit too cold to put directly into the stock pot, so I filled the sink up with hot water and left it bathing for five minutes beforehand. It's worth mentioning that if you do decide to go with one of these kits, make sure you work out how you're going to connect the chiller to your water supply. It comes supplied with a threaded connector, but with nowhere to attach it, I had to improvise. In the end I plumbed the inlet pipe to a gardening hose, fed through the kitchen window, which was connected to an outside tap! Doing this probably worked in my favour, as I managed to cool the wort down to 20°C in around 15 minutes! 

Brew my beauty!
With the wort now at the desired temperature I removed the hop sacks and placed them in the sieve over the FV and carefully poured the wort over the hops as so to extract any more flavour and to filter out sediment, which is easier said than done with an 11 litre pot full to the brim! Now all that was left was to pitch the yeast (Safale US-05), put the lid on and wait for the magic to happen. Two days in and fermentation appears to be ticking along nicely. 

So what useful lessons have I learnt during this exercise? Definitely on my next brewday I shall be making sure all that grain is separated and wet, probably with the aid of a fork rather than a big stirring spoon. To speed up the boiling stage I will split the wort between a couple of pans and merge them once boiling. Oh and also I will have a brand new set of digital scales to weigh out the hops properly. Bring it on! 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Part 4: Second Time Lucky...

So after my false start on the bottling front I decided to leave Alfie in peace for a few days. On my next available night I performed another gravity test, which was still at 1.008, telling me this time it was definitely ready to go! Whooo! So with bottles cleansed and rinsed...again, I mentally prepared myself for the task ahead...

Having used a kit for my first attempt I obviously didn't have any influence over the general flavour of the beer I chose, but I did wonder whether I could enhance it in any way at the secondary fermentation stage.

Alfie relinquishing
the dark stuff.
So before beer touched bottle, I decided to do a bit of research on what effects using different priming sugars would have on the end result. It seemed that the use of darker sugars would be fine for priming, the yeasts would eat up the sugars and leave behind a flavour that would compliment a porter or stout. So I rummaged through the cupboards dug out every type of sugar we had - white, light brown, dark brown and muscavado (I thought it best to leave out the icing sugar). I also discovered a tin of "Trick or Treacle", a Lyle's limited edition black eyes lit up! I hit the net to see what was the best way of getting this sticky goo into bottles with minimal mess. The method was obvious and simple - batch priming; mix the treacle with some of the beer in a separate container and pour that into the bottles. Easy as that! This would also ensure I got an even distribution between bottles keeping the content consistent. So I boiled up a tablespoon of the jet black treacle with a dash of water and added a teaspoon of quality instant coffee just for an added dimension. Once mixed I tipped it into a sterilised jug with a litre of beer and poured it straight into a couple of bottles. Two down, thirty eight to go!

Beer, sweet beer...
To simply enjoy my efforts, I stuck to the instructions and used plain white sugar for the majority of the bottling, and then for experimentation purposes I bottled four of each with the darker sugars. This time I didn't bother with the batch mixing method, instead opting for a small funnel and a measuring spoon.

It didn't take long until I got into my stride and had an efficient production line on the go - put the sugar in half a dozen bottles, dispense beer, line them up for capping, mark caps to denote the sugar type used, move to storage...and repeat. Before I knew it I was done, all forty bottles filled, hurrah! Now I have to just sit and wait for a couple of weeks until I can sample my spoils.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Macc Homebrew Meetup...

One thing I wanted when I delved into this home brew marlarky was to seek out like minded amateur beer chemists to chew the fat with, so I asked around the local beery haunts of Macclesfield to see if anyone knew of any local homebrew clubs, but unfortunately everyone drew a blank. So the plan was to start one up time permitting, but it looks like someone beat me to it! The first meet is to take place at 7PM on the 19th of November at the Red Willow bar, if you're interested in attending just drop @macchomebrew a tweet. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Need More Input...

Before I embarked on my new brewing pass time I wanted to get to know the ins and outs of homebrewing, so like some kind of fleshy Johnny Five I went on the rampage for more input, ordering books willy-nilly for all corners of the internet. Here I give a rundown of the books I've acquired and my thoughts from a beginners point of view.

The Homebrew Handbook - Dave Law and Beshlie Grimes
This was the first book I ordered when I set out on this little adventure, and with what little knowledge I had at the time I did find it very informative. It has a punky vibe to it's design, which is fine for your initial read through, but for a pickup reference guide it makes it a little difficult to quickly scan through. There are 75 bare bones recipes included, so you can get you grips with the basic styles before you begin experimenting.

Home Brew Beer - Greg Hughes
I always associate Dorling Kindersley with kids books about dinosaurs or pond life, and initially when you flick through the pages it does have that kind of feel about it. However, once you get stuck in you realise it's clear, concise and goes into a bit more depth than The Homebrew Handbook. It's clarity also lends itself more as a reference guide, with the edges of the pages denoting each section making it a breeze to flick through. It has 100 recipes and for a lot of them it also instructions for the malt extract version.

The Radical Brewer - Randy Mosher
I bought this based on an indirect Twitter recommendation from Jay Krause of Quantum Brewing. I wanted more input, and I most definitely got it! This book is so packed full of information it'll blow your mind, but it's all written in an easy going and amusing manner that makes for a really entertaining read. The way Randy talks in this book has really struck a chord with me, with where I am now and where I want to be, essentially - do your own thing, go crazy, make great beers and enjoy it because you're a brewing wizard! It also has a plethora of spells recipes with names like "Mister Boing Boing" and "Dragon's Milk"...brilliant! I can see this becoming my bible when I get stuck into some proper brewing.

The Complete Homebrew Handbook - Various
Just when I thought I was done with my pursuit of physical reading material I spotted this. It's part magazine, part book - a bookazine if you will, and although it initially covers the usual stuff, such as history, terminology, methods, etc., the real selling point for me were the recipes. It doesn't feature the usual generic beers, instead opting for recipes of well loved brews from the likes of Thornbridge, Quantum, Magic Rock, Weird Beard, Wild Beer Co and Mikkeller, but to name drop a few! There's even a recipe for Kernel's Export India Stout included, one of my favorite tipples of recent happy am I? Extremely! Though I expect my results will not be quite as polished as Kernel's efforts (I mean c'mon, who's would be?), but it'll still be great to have a bash and will no doubt be an interesting exercise. There's also a handy section of useful tips from the said brewers too for fledgling homebrewers such as myself. Overall it's well written, in depth and packed full of detail. Definitely worth seeking out.

Monday, 21 October 2013

BrewDog Collab Fest...

If you missed the buzz surrounding the BrewDog Collab Fest, the general gist is that the fine folk from each BrewDog bar across the land chose a favorite local microbrewery and collaborated with them to create a special tipple. There were twelve beers and eleven brewers, with the final beer being a super-collab hop monster, which involved all the master brewsmen and women paying a visit to BrewDog's mega brewery to conjure up a beer made from twelve different hops. They each got to choose which hop variety to use and at what stage of the brewing process it was added. Oh my, this shit just got real!

My plan was to hit BrewDog Manchester early doors and sample thirds of all twelve creations before things got too busy. Thankfully I arrived just before a mental rain shower hit, it was like the end of the world was nigh! I considered building an ark out of beer mats and Hop Propaganda magazines so I could save the beers two-by-two. Thankfully the storm didn't last long and I could get down to just sampling them instead. Here are my thoughts, in the order I drank them:

Raspberry Beret - Quantum Brewing (5.0% ABV)
Quantum's concoction had more raspberry on the nose than in flavour, with a slight fruity hint lingering behind a lovely smoky chocolate stout. I was expecting more of a berry kick than it delivered, but that is in no way a criticism, it was a delicious well crafted beer.

Two local brews.

The Black Pale of the 7 'C's - Buxton Brewery (4.0% ABV)
The name derives from the seven varieties of hops, all beginning with the letter 'C' (I'll let you work them out). Obviously, it is full of citrusy hop complexity working in total harmony with a bitter finish. We're off to a cracking start!

Marmalade on Toast - Tempest (6.0% ABV)
Using toasted malts and loads of orange zest and ginger this was a well balanced beer that really did resemble its namesake. Although I did find it was very, very sweet (and I even have a sweet tooth!), so much so that I was struggling to finish even a third of this stuff! It would make a cracking dessert beer.

Jephers The Big Red Dog - Hand Drawn Monkey Brewing Co. (5.0% ABV)
Oh dear, something went wrong. This was without a doubt the biggest disappointment of the evening, and it seems that a lot of other Collab Fest goers were in agreement. This red rye saison was supposed to pack a punchy orange and ginger hit, but it ended up more of a damp squib! It was flat and weak, like watered down ginger cordial. Personally, I think if you're going to use ginger as a primary flavour it really needs to kick you in the packet, like Marble Ginger for example (which makes the back of my head go tingly every time I have it!).

Raucous Rubus - The Durham Brewery (5.7% ABV)
I don't normally go for fruity beers unless they're tart...and that's exactly what I got with Durham's raspberry saison. It was sharp and fresh, a real palate cleanser and just what I needed after the previous offering. The missus said it tasted like a sour boiled sweet, no argument there.

Dark Matter - Beavertown Brewery (3.8% ABV)
From one sour beer to another, this time a Berliner Sour Stout. Simply put, this beer is insane! But, you wouldn't expect anything less from the guys at Beavertown would you? Under the dim light of the bar this brew looked very dark, and murky, so much so it seemed to be absorbing the surrounding light! It also looked to be flat, I took a swig and to my surprise it came alive in the mouth, fizzing nicely on the tongue, which distracted me momentarily...then BAM! The sour comes flying out of the murk and attacked the taste spuds with such ferocity my eyes popped out of my skull, and before I could even draw breath it was gone...just leaving behind a mellow coffee stout aftertaste. I was left grinning from ear-to-ear! If this is the stuff that binds our universe together then call me Neil Armstrong, because I'm hopping on the next space shuttle outta here!

Lining up the "shots".

12 Hope Pale Ale - Everyone! (5.2% ABV)
This super-collab between all the brewers involved is certifiably schizophrenic. You are hit with a multitude of flavours within a split second of taking a mouthful. It's all over the place and it probably shouldn't have worked, but it did! I guess with that much talent on hand it would have been hard to cock this one up.

48 Miles Later - Fyne Ales (6.0% ABV)
Chili always worries me in beer as I've had some complete stinkers in the past that have tasted more like detergent. I needn't have worried though, the experienced chaps at Fyne know their stuff and they delivered a gorgeous smoky black IPA (beechwood smoked malts) with a slight earthy hint of chipotle and ancho chilies that just tingled on the tongue.

Camden BearD - Weird Beard Brew Co. (6.0% ABV)
This American pale ale had a fantastic aroma, which continued into the drink. Possibly a bit too soapy for some folk, but I actually enjoyed the respite from the more big hitters of the night.

Black Rocker - Cromarty Brewing Co. (5.0% ABV)
Another dark smokey beer, but with some great hoppage going on. Not a lot else to say about this one. Can you tell my tasting notes are getting thinner as the evening wears on?

Happy Ending - Lovibonds (5.0% ABV)
I wish I had ended on this one. It was a really crisp, refreshing tipple, with hints of ginger and a citrus hit from the lemongrass and lime leaves. This would have been perfect on a hot summers day.

Pirate Badger Attacks - Arbor (7.8%)

It's a great name and what sounded like interesting brew - an Imperial Brown Coconut IPA. By this point my tastebuds were completely smashed to pieces, what with all the sour, smoky, ginger chili brews that I had consumed through out the night. I honestly couldn't taste the coconut, but I could definitely smell it. The wife (who had this one earlier on in the night) did say if Malibu ever made beers, it would resemble this.

. . .

As we were tackling our last third I decided to corner Jay Krause from Quantum, who was on hand to lend his support and chat with fellow beer fans. I quizzed him about the trials and tribulations of turning pro, and he offered much in the way of encouragement and valuable knowledge. I also got an offer to visit the brewery at some point, possibly because he'd be glad of an extra pair of hands. After we had spoken I did wonder if I could increase my brewing skill by growing a real beard? I usually sport a long stubble, teetering on the edge of beardom, which must only grant me something like +1 brewing skill. Where as Jay's "Beard of Chaos" must bestow +100 brewing skill or something, judging by his results. Just saying.

Anyway, on top of the fabulous beers, one of the highlights of the night was the group of bemused Man United fans, who popped in for a quick post-match scoop, wondering why people were racking up "shots" of beer on paddles. I don't think they could get their heads around the concept of a "third", especially when looking at those BrewDog prices! Suffice to say they only stuck around for one round.

All in all it was a superb night, but my wallet definitely didn't appreciate it! Well done to everyone involved!

Further impressions of the Collab Fest can be found at ThisBeerBlog and The BeerCast.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Cuckoo Brew-ventures...

After what was supposed to be a "two halves and then home" evening at the Red Willow gaff, which spiralled into a fantastic Italian ale tasting session (from the likes of BrewFist, ToccalMatto and Birrificio Italiano), my head is feeling a bit on the tender side this morning. So whilst having a medicinal cup of coffee earlier I had a quick scan through Twitter and spotted a retweet from Manc brewer Blackjack Beers bringing my attention to an interesting write up on Othertonales Blog. The article chronicles the aspiring author's recent visit to Blackjack Beers to cook up his own homebrew concoction on Marble Brewery's old kit. It's interesting to read from an amateur brewer's perspective, the move from a homebrew set up to adapting a recipe for larger professional equipment, all with the aim of going commercial with the results. I think I shall be keeping a close eye on that blog...

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Part 3: Maybe a Bit Eager...

Having watched a big white tub like an expectant father to be it was almost time (according to the instructions) to put the dark stuff into bottles for the next step of the fermentation process. Before this could happen a bit of prep work needed to be done.

A couple of nights before, I had poured a sample to perform a gravity check, which came out at 1.010 (the OG was 1.040), confirming something had occurred inside the bucket; hopefully it was my little yeasty friends working their magic. I gave the murky liquid a quick sniff and it definitely smelled like beer, not a great beer mind, but I was at least pleased there had been no intervention by bacterial bastards.

Cleansed and ready to go...nowhere.
The night before bottling I decided to get the bottles prepped to give them chance to dry. Whilst the prospect of bottling was very exciting; seeing my efforts trickle into their final resting place before impending consumption, the sterilisation of the bottles most definitely wasn't. Singing "40 Brown Bottles" just reminded me of how many I had left to clean, and furthermore they're plastic and wouldn't break if they fell anyway, I'd just end up having them clean them again. I had to stay focused, I was not out of the woods yet and attention to cleanliness at this point dictates who gets to glug this beer - me or the sink! After what seemed like hours (in reality it was only around 20 minutes), the last bottle was rinsed out and I could get on with doing something more interesting.

The next evening the brewery/kitchen was jumping with excitement (just from me) - Dark Matter was to be bottled! Hurrah! Everything was laid out and ready to go; measuring spoons...check, a selection of sugars for priming...check, 40 very, very clean bottles...check. I tapped Alfie for a second sample and performed another gravity test - it was 1.008! Cripes, Alfie was still not done! I was actually a little pleased because at 1.010 it would have been a mere 4% ABV, which was a little weaker than I was expecting. An executive decision was taken to leave the black stuff until my next available evening, three days later...

I did feel slightly disappointed about this false start, maybe I was a little too eager, but it is a learning process after all. So what lessons did I learn by this episode? 
  1. That there are so many factors involved in brewing you can't take the instructions of the back of a packet as de facto. (Not that I plan on using kits in the future anyway)
  2. Don't wash your bottles before checking that the beer is actually ready to be bottled...saves you having to rewash those damn bottles!
  3. The brew will be ready when it's ready.
Oh and I also noticed that Beavertown's BrewDog collab is also called Dark Matter, damn them! Whether the accumulation of brewing experience that has gone into crafting their beer make it better than my own kit effort, that still remains to be seen, but I'll let them have this one (I'm obviously joking here!). I will be paying a visit to BrewDog Manchester this Saturday to sample their brew...along with the other 11 collab beers of course!

Monday, 14 October 2013

IMBC 2013 Coverage...

Damn blast the gods! Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this years Independent Manchester Beer Convention and just had to make do with spectating the festivities via the power of Twitter. If like me you couldn't make it, fear not, as my fellow beer-bloggers over at BeersManchester and All Beer No Belly have written up their take on the event. So grab yourself a top beer, your chosen electronic internet reading device and head to the bathroom, it might not be quite as majestic as Victoria Baths, but it's probably the best you're going to get until next year!

Update: Another write has hit the interweb courtesy of The BeerCast.

Update #2: The second part BeersManchester's IMBC adventures has landed, and more musing can be found at Tyson's Beer & Cheese Blog.

Update #3: Two more for your reading pleasure over at The Evening Brews and Beer Battered.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Part 2: Get yer brew on...

With kit in possession it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty and get some brewing on the go, but we're not going anywhere with the equipment in bits. 

I was always handy with Lego and Meccano when I was a kid, to the point where my mother suspected I might be on the autistic spectrum, so I didn't expect this step to pose any problems...and it didn't. The instructions supplied were concise (not that I really need them of course!) and there was support available should I have needed it. I took extra special care to make sure the tap attached to the bottom of the fermenting bucket was water tight, I didn't fancy cleaning up a 5 gallon puddle of malty mess from the kitchen floor first thing in the morning.
Don't touch it,
don't even look
at it!

If there's one thing that's hammered home whilst I was researching the way of the home brew it was cleanliness. It doesn't matter what you do in any other step of the brew process, if you've got bugs on your kit, your beer will be sh*t! So I wanted to make sure I didn't fall foul at this important step and in my mind I thought I might purchase some clean room overalls. In reality, I wasn't working on a satellite for NASA, so just jeans and t-shirt were fine (although I did wear clean jeans and t-shirt just for peace of mind). I added the recommended amount of sanitiser and hot water into my bucket, chucked in anything else that needed sterilizing, and left it for the required time. Then I rinsed it out numerous times - five swirls left, five swirls right, ditch and repeat. CSI would be hard pushed to find any trace of DNA in that bad boy!

Cleaning chores done, the magic can begin! Following the instructions on the back of the beer kit, I empty the warm gooey contents into the bucket, mixing it with boiling water and the supplied brewing sugar. As I stir the steaming solution like some kind of brew-wizard, a great sense of satisfaction washed over me, I'm only bloody making beer people! No one else was around to enjoy this moment, but I did a little dance. YEAH! *skyward fist thrust*

With the mixture well and truly mixed, I topped it up to the 23 litre mark with cold water and sprinkled on the magic ingredient - the yeast. Like microscopic astronauts, I saluted, wished them luck on their journey and sealed the capsule. At this point I start to become paranoid about the bucket not being air tight, despite the liberal smearing of Vaseline applied around the lid and airlock. Don't panic!

Alfie in action...
I stood watching it expecting some kind of violent chemical reaction, instead I was just watched relaxed dark liquid in a big white tub. Beer brewing isn't a spectacle. At this point you have no idea whether it'll be a success, it's a waiting game and you can't influence the results by just staring at it. I felt so helpless. But wait, it still needs me! The temperature needs to be kept between 20-25°C for optimal fermentation, so with brew belt at the ready, I frequently monitored the thermometer strip to the point where it was manifesting into an obsessive compulsive disorder.

After a few days of around the clock monitoring, the dark liquid (since named Dark Matter) began to show signs of life - foam was forming on the surface and the pressure had started to build leading to some activity in the airlock. Alfie was alive! At this point my first time nerves began to subside and I started to feel a bit more relaxed about the whole process. I'm now counting down the days until phase 3 - the bottling!