Wednesday, 14 March 2012

First Steps in Brewing

Before I started writing about my all-grain brews, I wanted to write a bit about how I started out. At the time it seemed really easy to get started, but then none of the first few batches turned out exactly as I wanted them to, which says something. I started brewing beer towards the end of 2011 – it’s something I’d wanted to do for a long time but never had the impetus to start. I was lucky enough to have parents that have made beer, cider and wine intermittently throughout my childhood, so they had fermenters, airlocks and hydrometers knocking around. As a hugely impatient novice, I had the idea that I could flick through John Palmer’s How to Brew, buy some ingredients, and suddenly be turning out decent brews. As I said – an impatient, naïve novice. The hardest bit for me to get my head around was the cleanliness. Everything needs sterilizing – fermenters, equipment, surfaces… but not too much, as any trace of the chemicals you’ve used will do as much damage to the brew as if you’d not bothered at all. A thin sodium hypochlorite solution does not taste good – but more of that later.

The first brew was a beer kit called Citrus Blast, put together by Pop’s Home Brew in Cheltenham. It seemed a bit too easy – you got some dried yeast, two cans of Coopers LME and a couple of different hop additions, each in their own bags. Boil them up with as much water as you can fit in as big a pot as you can get your hands on, then after an hour tip it into the fermenter, top up with cold water (which helps bring the temperature down to 20C), then pitch some rehydrated Nottingham yeast. What we had after fermentation was recognizably beer – deep brown, bit of malt, a bit of classic English hops… it just wasn’t the sort of stuff I like to drink.

Brew Two was another kit, which should have come out as a 5% stout, and consisted of a single hop bag and two cans of Coopers Dark extract. I had the bright idea of cutting the overall volume to under 4 gallons instead of 5 in order to bump up the original gravity to 1.080 or something silly and therefore, in theory, the eventual ABV. No taking into account the yeast (it was the same dried Nottingham yeast) or the amount of unfermentables in the Dark Malt Extract or anything – I told you I was naive. It eventually bottomed out at something like 1.028, looked and smelled like Marmite and tasted like, well, diluted Dark Malt Extract. Thinking it was a write-off, we decided to play around with it a bit – splitting it into four one-gallon demi-johns and putting some coffee beans into one, bourbon-soaked oak chips into another, both oak and coffee into a third and leaving the fourth gallon untouched. I’d read online about using coffee and oak to flavour stouts in the secondary, and given that our extract beast seemed to be a bit of a mess, I thought it would be an opportunity to try it out. We gave them all a week, then bottled then. Incredibly, they turned out okay – they were clearly not going to win any brewing awards, but the coffee and oak came through in the various bottles to take the edge off the twang. I’m planning to leave a few bottles for six months and see if they’ve improved.

At Christmas time I was given a 5-gallon boiler, an immersion chiller and some other new equipment, and decided to make Brew Three a recipe of my own. I adapted a recipe online for an Imperial IPA, and,ordered three cans of light malt extract, some US hops (Apollo and Chinook) and a vial of White Labs WLP001 California Yeast. The boil seemed to have gone well, the OG was up at 1.070 where it should have been, and the hops smelled great. Seven days later, it was down to 1.018 - despite me not making a starter, firstly because I didn't know exactly how and secondly because I hoped the yeast would pull through). We racked it to the secondary for dry-hopping with more of the Chinook hops and left it to settle. However, when we came back to it in the following days, there was an odd smell to it – instead of the crisp hop aroma, there was a slight chlorine taint to it that got worse when I tasted a sample. My theory is that there must have been some undissolved crystals of the sodium hypochlorite in the bottom of the secondary that we hadn’t rinsed out properly. The whole batch was ruined (although having said that, my brother couldn’t really taste it, so drank every bottle over the course of a fortnight…)

The lessons I learned from the first few batches were:
  1. -       Keep everything sanitised... but rinse everything before use to make sure there's no residue.
  2. -       Don’t mess around too much unless you know what you’re doing. If you do have to start messing around, make copious notes. 
  3. -       Record everything… starting temps, OGs, FGs, everything.
  4. -       Don’t be too ambitious to start with.
  5. -       Read and learn as much as possible - the Palmer book is highly recommended.
  6. -       Until you know what you’re doing, expect to make fairly mediocre beer at best
      That's not to imply I'm any kind of expert now, but I'm definitely cringing a bit at remembering some of the stuff I've just written....

Wednesday, 7 March 2012


I’m looking forward to trying a bottle of my first all-grain beer batch, a coffee stout called Black Rain, which I brewed back in January. I’ll blog about that my fully when I do, but one of the big challenges I faced was trying to source the right coffee beans to put in the secondary. I wanted to copy the coffee aroma of Founders’ Breakfast Stout, but despite finding a recipe online and going to every supermarket or coffee vendor around Cheltenham, we couldn’t find what they use – Kona coffee. (In the end, we used some Guatemalan beans instead.)

Kona’s coffee is hugely prized – the conditions on the volcanic western slopes of Hawaii’s Big Island are perfect for growing it, and apparently it can fetch more than £50 a lb. (I made sure to pick up a couple of pounds for the next batches of coffee stout – much cheaper than that, I assure you). Somewhat less prized are the beers of their local microbrewery, the Kona Brewing Company, which is based a few hundred yards from the sea in Kailua-Kona. I’d seen their beers on the shelves of Whole Foods in San Fran, but not tried any of them, so was immediately curious. Although the beer element of our trip was ostensibly over, I can’t resist the lure of a brewery tour, especially if there’s an adjoining brewpub.

Kona Brewing Company's compact setup, which only produces draft beer
Given the hot and humid year-round climate in Kona, the majority of KBC’s brews fit into the pale, designed-to-be-served-ice-cold mould – they have a stock lager, the grassy, gassy Longboard; a pale ale, Fire Rock; and a slightly paler ale, which was on draught only and whose name escapes me (it may be the Duke's Blonde). I wasn’t too impressed by these – bland and anaemic, they may have been microbrewed but they didn’t taste particularly individual. At the end of the tour, we got to try a sample of Even their Hefeweizen, Hula, was strangely muted – lots of fruity, banana twang, but very one-note, with no real depth or complexity.

Kona's Longboard Lager - the colour of varnished pine but without the flavour

The Lavaman Red comes across like a pint of English premium bitter that’s been chilled to freezing point and then carbonated to within an inch of its life (They have a cask-conditioned night every other Friday, and perhaps this might be better served that way). Their IPA was better – a passion fruit bomb on the nose, although it was a bit too dry in the finish. Our tour guide, an ebullient man called Jesse, wouldn’t divulge the hop bill of as ‘we don’t give away our recipes’ – although this may be news to the brewers, who put all the info for each beer on their website. So the hops in the IPA are Northern Brewer, Cascade and Centennial – just don’t tell Jesse. The best of the pale beers is Wailua Wheat, a wit brewed with passion fruit juice. You get the fruit flavour straight away, but then it fades into the body of the beer to become a refreshing note rather than dominating.

Their most successful beers are their darker or more experimental beers. Pipeline Porter, which takes their stock porter, Black Sand, and ages it on the aforementioned Kona coffee, was fantastic – a really rich coffee aroma, but only a hint of coffee in the flavour, with the caramel malt flavour dominating. Their other coffee beer, a stout called Da Kine Grind, was even better – bumping up the strength to 8.5% and pouring engine-black. The most impressive thing for me was the rich, creamy head – something you don’t usually see with coffee beers due to the oil in the coffee killing the head retention. I didn’t see it poured, so perhaps there’s some special technique at play. We stuck to these for our time on the island – the Pipeline Porter was so good that we took a growler of it away.

My 64oz Kona growler alongside some of their Pipeline Porter

Pipeline was one of the beers we’d seen in Whole Foods, and again in some of the local liquor stores on the island, so it might have made more sense to buy bottles. However, the two beers are not necessarily one and the same. While the beer we’d been drinking in the brewpub – and that’s supplied to Kona’s other bars and restaurants – is brewed on site in Kona, all their bottled beer is contract brewed by the Craft Beer Alliance at an industrial facility in Oregon. While Jesse was quick to point out on the tour that this was just a question of size, and that this practice is commonplace, but it made me feel uneasy – I’ve read of UK brewers having one particularly popular core beer contract-brewed to meet demand, usually while they are trying to expand their own brewing facilities, but the Kona setup means that their brewers never touch any of the beer that is distributed nationwide – only that which is drunk in Hawaii. And there’s no indication on any of their bottle labels that the beers, which trade heavily on their island heritage, have actually been crafted on the mainland. Perhaps I am being too naïve here.

If you’re lucky enough to visit Kona, I do recommend taking the tour and trying their beers for yourself. The adjoining brewpub does fantastic food – using some of the dried, spent grain from the mash tun to make pizza dough and bread, which I thought was quite cool. For the moment though, I don’t think coffee is under threat as the most famous drink from Kona.