“The yeast died!” — A first batch brewing story

Brewing can be a nerve-wracking endeavour when you’re starting out. Here’s a story from our first batch, since dubbed “Passable Porter.”

We did the brew on Saturday. Happy little newbies that we were, we thought we’d done a pretty well. No major screw-ups, nothing spilled or contaminated.

We shuttled the bucket off to the utility room, uncertain of whether it would make a serious mess or smell bad (it was our first batch–brews have since moved inside). Since the inception of the brewing plans, that room had been the intended home for our beer. But one thing we hadn’t thought through was the temperature. It was actually quite a bit colder there in October than might have been good. Regardless, we set the bucket there, and by Sunday the yeast had taken off. Oh the joy of hearing that burbling!

Monday rolled around, and I headed in to work. It was a normal day until the phone rang. My wife had called to tell me that the beer had gone silent. Not slowing like we’d expected, but a dead stop already.

Panic! I remembered reading about beer perking away for days, sometimes even weeks. What could have happened? I immediately suspected the utility room was at fault. It had gotten awfully cold overnight. That must have killed the yeast. I forgot entirely that some yeasts can even be frozen without harm. I was certain the cold had brought our fermentation to a premature end.

What a terrible afternoon. The joy of completing our first successful brew turned sour in my mouth. I fretted about it until I got off work, and finally broke down and called the folks at Main Street.

Turns out that it isn’t unusual for a batch to only go for a day, especially with the type of dry yeast we were using. We moved the porter to the secondary, bottled and eventually sampled. It wasn’t perfect–merely passable–but despite my nervousness, the yeast had not died.

Brown in bottles, Porter in the pot

Although the blog may have gone quiet for a bit, the brewing certainly hasn’t around here. This past weekend we started up our fifth batch–a redux on the initial porter, which we badly botched since we didn’t add enough water back.

Our last effort, the brown, has been in bottles for a couple weeks, but hasn’t gotten the real taste-test yet. The first sip we took at bottling time was okay, and has us wondering what the end product will taste like. However, time does a significant amount to change the character of any home-brewed beer, so I’m still hopeful.

The past month or so of sitting has done a lot to enhance the Trappist-style ale. A lot of the sharpness has worn off. It has a significantly fruity taste, a sweet bubble-gum/banana smell (which is the hallmark of this type of brew), and only a bit too much hoppy bitterness that’s out of the ordinary.

More brewing stories here to come, but for the moment I’m just going to savor the sound of the porter bubbling away in the next room. Ahh, it’s like beautiful music.

Stout!

This last weekend was another bottle and brew–Trappist-style ale going into the bottles, and a nut brown ale brewing. My friend Brian was in town, and brown ales are his favorite variety, so we took the opportunity to start a batch and share the joy of brewing.

But beyond that, it was the moment of truth for our second effort. The stout had been in the bottles a couple weeks. Not long enough to reach their full potential maybe, but long enough to give it a try.

After our passable porter, I was anxious over how the stout would turn out. We fixed the rookie mistakes we made the first time around (i.e. filled the bucket to the full 5 gallon mark, duh!) and at the bottling things looked good. But the proof is in the drinking, so we cracked open three bottles.

First good sign was the aroma. Our inaugural porter had a funky, almost sour scent to it (reminded me of the bottle room when I worked at Albertsons… not a good thing). The stout by contrast smelled nice and beery, just like a stout ought to. Carbonation level was a positive too, some foaming but nothing out of control.

And the taste? Bingo! It had the dark, rich, full bodied flavor I look for in a stout. It is still pretty fresh, so there’s a zip that a few more patient weeks should smooth out, but overall it was more than just passable. Here’s a beer I can gladly share with friends and not feel the need to qualify, “Remember, it’s my first batch!”

Ah, success!

Sauna for a Trappist-style Ale

As noted previously, we moved the primary fermenter into the bathroom to get some good heat going for it. Man did that work! Within a few short hours the space heater had pumped things up to about 75-80 degrees, and the beer went from bubbling every 25 seconds or so to a nearly constant 5 second clip.

This kept up for about a day and a half, then dropped off precipitously. This was a familiar phenomena from the first brewing batch, where in a short span of time things seemed to go entirely (and eeriely) dead. The reality is that the sugars just ran out, so the yeast were finished.

The Trappist-style ale has moved over to the secondary for its nice, couple week settle, and then into the bottles.

Bottle and Brew

Last Friday was the first big bottle and brew for Andrew and myself. Our second batch of beer, a Northwest-style Stout, sat ready in the carboy, sediment nicely settled, for bottling. For Christmas, Andrew had gotten a kit for making a Trappist style ale, and since it had liquid rather than dry yeast, we decided to get going on that sooner rather than later.

For bottling, we bought a dozen 22 oz. bottles, along with another case of 12 oz. ones liked we’d used before. Our first batch boiled off way too much liquid, and we didn’t realize it until we bottled up. This time, we’d topped off properly, and came out with the equivalent of 49 12 oz. bottles. Not a bad job all told. We sampled a bit, and it tasted like stout–flat, not terribly interesting stout, but that’s to be expected. The magic continues once beer is in the bottles.

After we’d resterilized the bucket and additional equipment, it was time to brew the Trappist. Our third batch, it went quite smoothly. The whole process is getting more comfortable, and I at least didn’t feel compulsed to hover over the pot every last second of the brewing.

The Trappist recipe had several major differences from the porters and stouts we’d tried before–longer time for the hops, the addition of “brewer’s candy”, and liquid yeast. As far as I can tell, the candy was simply amber colored sugar crystals. They got stirred in with the malt extract. Apparently, the hops and sugar balance each other out in the final product. Although it will be considerably hoppier, the added sugar keeps it from getting too bitter.

Liquid yeast didn’t have much difference in the pitching compared to dry–you do let it come to room temperature, and then put it in the cooled wort. However, there have been some significant differences in the behavior over the last week of primary fermentation. One of the guys at Main Street Brewing explained to me that it isn’t unusual for liquid yeasts to act more gently and, hence, take a longer time. As of today, the spacing between bubbles from the airlock is still running around 15-25 seconds (the sweet spot we’re looking for is between one minute and a minute thirty).

Another detail of the Trappist-style ale that’s different is the fermentation temperature. Belgian breweries routinely run their primary for this type of beer at almost 80 degrees! We were gone over the first weekend and stashed it in the closed bathroom, which stayed nice and toasty. Since then, it’s been out in cooler climes, which might have robbed us of a flavor. In hopes of getting a bit back (and finishing sooner) we’ve moved it back to a corner of the bathroom, closed the door and put on a space heater to reach those balmy temperatures the beer is craving.

Another couple weeks until sampling time with the stout, but the brewing is progressing quite nicely.

Main Street Homebrew

When delving into the mysterious world of brewing, contradictory information is the norm. The newbie needs a guide, to point out the right direction, reveal the pitfalls and simply calm the nerves.

For us, that position is amply filled by Main Street Homebrew. Not only does the shop provide the specific supplies and kits that are such a boon to new homebrewers these days (I can’t imagine brewing back before homebrew shopes were common!), it’s a source of excellent advice. When we purchased the goods to make our first batch, Kevin, Main Street’s owner, walked us through each step of the instructions. Although I’d already read a book on the subject, having that personal direction was great.

If you’re in the Portland metro area, I highly recommend Main Street Homebrew. Even if you’re not, you’ll find a wealth of good, reliable information on their website. Check out the Information page for a start–I found the bottling article to be particularly useful.

Obligatory Introduction

After many years of dreaming it finally happened–I’ve started brewing with my good friend Andrew. As a beer lover, the idea of crafting my own brew has always appealed both for building an understanding of how it’s made and enjoying the results. Plus, who could resist the call of harnessing millions of wee-yeasties to do my bidding!

Between a gift certificate that Andrew got and my own birthday present from my lovely wife, we were finally set in October. Our first attempt was a porter, and I suggested we call it “Passable Porter”… assuming it was passable. I’ll ramble more about the process and details later, but we came out with something drinkable, which was more than I expected from a first batch.

From there, we’ve got a West Coast stout sitting in the primary, and plans to use a Trappist ale kit that Andrew received for Christmas this weekend. All in all, we’re off to a great start.

I’ll be inviting Andrew to write here too, and we’ll record the trials and travails as we learn the ins and outs of making that most potable of potables–beer.