It was our trip to Napa Valley to run in a relay last summer which made me even think homebrewing was something I could do. Everywhere I ran I saw entire communities which focused on wine making, wine selling, and wine distributing. Two hundred miles later, not all ran by me because it was a relay, we finally met some of these growers and makers. Some of them were cool enough to let us in on a bit of the magic behind finding that perfect grape at the optimal time of year and turning it into something fantastic.
I was inspired by the passion for a craft and drawn to the art of experimentation. How often do you get to throw a bunch of stuff together, watch it grow, and then drink it! I wanted to scour the land for the perfect ingredients or grow everything myself. Then I got a bit intimidated, and started second guessing my ability. No way could mild mannered me birth a delicious brew that everyone could enjoy. More than likely I’d end up with a bathtub of poison, as that was my only context for “homebrewing beer”. One night, as if on autopilot toward a greater cause, I ordered a starter kit, and a box of Oktoberfest. Why Oktoberfest as my first homebrewed beer? I don’t know, except for maybe that it was October. A couple weeks of big boxes showing up at the door and it was time to brew!
Reading through the instructions in the beer kit over and over I made sure I had everything I needed.
- Sanitize the shit out of everything! I started with dish soap just to get things clean then moved up to a tub of StarSan, which entailed, filling a crock pot with 2.5 gallons of solution. This is quite useful as I just left my air lock, bung, funnel, and siphon in there for most of the boil. “Bung funnel” sounds funny.
- Heat 2.5 gallons of water in a large kettle to 160°F to steep specialty grains for about 15 minutes. The steep temperature is important, too cold and you may not extract all the deliciousness and too hot you may get some burnt flavors in your boil. I used a gas stove and made sure to take note of what level I had the heat set so that I could recreate it on subsequent brew days.
- Once I removed the sack of grain I cranked up the heat until it came to a gentle rolling boil at 212°F. This is when I added my dry and syrup malts. The syrup malt comes in a large can, so I put it in some super warm water to thin it a bit. I wanted every last drop of that stuff. I read it’s a good idea to remove the pot from heat while adding the malts to avoid burnage on the bottom. I like good ideas.
- Once things were added and mixed a bit I brought it all back up to a boil. I now had “wort” on my hands and the one hour boil began. I have read some arguments to go 90 minutes, but they aren’t fresh in my mind right now. If you are curious go look it up. I just felt inclined to mention it.
- Fifteen minutes into the boil I added my hops. Hops smell so good.
- Next was the understated task of cooling 2.5 gallons of boiling liquid to 80°F. It was cold outside, and a decent amount of snow covered the yard, so instead of making an ice bath in the sink I took it outside and packed snow around it.
- Three hours later, (I noted this as something that needed work next time around), I poured it into the carboy, and then added the rest of my water. I didn’t quite have 5 gallons in there as I underestimated the amount of water I’d lose during the boil. (I also noted this as a reason my beer ended up being 11% alcohol.) It’s good to let it splash around as fill the fermenter for a couple reasons. First, it can help cool the wart down if your top off water is cool. Second, it will aerate the home of your yeast so that they may thrive.
- I put my siphon in there to extract a sample so I could get a gravity reading.
- Finally I “pitched” the yeast by just pouring it directly into the carboy. At this time my wort was 68°F. Don’t pitch if your wort is above 78°F as this could flat out annihilate your yeast population.
- Lastly I bunged it, you know by using a bung, then put an air lock in the bung which was filled with a bit of StarSan solution, and carried it down to the basement where it would stay a steady 65°F.
Brew day was over and all I had left to do was wait.
- Bottle preparation. The night prior to bottling I took 50 empty brown bottles of various origins and soaked them in hot dish soap water. Then in the morning I gave them a scrub to completely remove the labels, and a bottle buddae to rinse them out. I let them dry a bit then soaked them in StarSan.
- I boiled some water to mix with the priming sugar, and boiled some more water to throw the bottle caps into for sanitization.
- After sanitizing the bottling bucket, I poured in the priming mixture, and then the beer with a little stirring.
- I put the bottling bucket up high to get gravity on my side then connected a hose and bottle filler and got to work.
- Fill, cap, fill, cap, fill, cap… I read to not completely seal them until everything is filled so as much Oxygen as possible is pushed from the bottle before capping.
This whole process went pretty quick. Cleaning and sanitizing this many bottles was a bit of a pain, but it yielded some pretty cool label art. It also helped that my wife was making chili while I bottled so I had a great reward for my hard work.
The bottles all went back down into my “fermentation room” for about a week before I moved them into a refrigerator. I drank a couple of them throughout this process and the longer I waited the better they tasted. Early on there was a bit of an alcohol taste, which was probably because I ended up with almost 11% alc. beer! Having a full 5 gallons of water to go with the kit is a bit important, but if you want to knock people over I guess that’s up to you.
I learned a few things on my first brew, and as I write I have another brew fermenting. Actually that thing needs to be racked into a secondary fermentor today sometime.
- Make sure you have enough water. This may be unique to me as I don’t trust there aren’t a bunch of additives in our drinking water, but I will boil a gallon of water from our osmosis filter just to make sure.
- Prepare the yeast. I hydrated the yeast for my most recent batch. This speeds them up and helps ensure the proper yeast conquers your wort. Wild and rogue barbaric yeasts can infiltrate your fermentor and change the flavor of your finished beer.
- If things look good, and you are in glass don’t rush it. I wish I would have left the beer in the fermenter a bit longer as it changed quite a bit once bottled, and continues to age well.
- Establish an effective chilling process. The three hours it took the first time is a bit silly, and I didn’t love the idea of it sitting outside. I now have a chiller that does the job in about 10 minutes and I have a bit more control over things.
Well, that was longer than expected but I wanted to give first time homebrewers a taste of things to come. I had a bit of anxiety going into brew day and I hope by sharing my journey I can squelch any lingering axiety out there. I had a blast throughout the entire process, and you can’t beat the feeling you get when you take that first wiff or taste of what is undoubtedly beer. Happy brewing!