The trials of a novice homebrewer
Home brewing, like craft beer brewing, has been going from strength to strength lately. Many of the shining stars of the UK craft brewing scene started out at home, most famous of these Kernel’s Evin O’Riordian. He used to bring his home bottled brews to experimental gigs, which is how I first came across it, at experimental venue mainstay Cafe Oto.
I had wanted to start homebrewing for a while, but having lived in small London flats for six years I had always been put off by the sheer size of the equipment. I was also intimidated by the steep learning curve that comes with all grain brewing. After doing a bit of research I found some very savvy Americans who had sorted out both of these problems. Skip forward in time to Christmas and me unwrapping a great little starter kit from Brooklyn Brew Co, courtesy of my girlfriend.
The kit was a 1 gallon all grain job, with all the basic equipment and ingredients to start brewing. The kit came with a set of basic but good instructions, perfect for a novice like myself. It also came with a great book full of interesting recipes, which I still to this day look through to get inspired. The bottle shop in Canterbury has very recently started stocking these kits, and I urge anyone who feels they want to go and play with the big bad brew monster to go and check it out. It’s a great way to start.
After what I thought was a fairly successful first brew day things subsequently started going awry. Three weeks later I was woken up at 4am by what sounded like smashing sounds. I got up, assuming one of the cats had broken some sort of smashable trinket. Damn those trinket-smashing cats. However, when I came into the kitchen I was faced with the aftermath of an explosion of glass and beer. One of my bottles of homebrew had decided to go nuclear and cover most of my lounge with an impressive amount of mess. Thankfully no one was hurt but it made me realise I needed to understand a wee bit more about the process before getting back on the brew-horse.
I read ‘The Complete Joy of Homebrewing’. I listened to a lot of the Brew Nation podcasts. And I started to realise that the concept of knowing everything about the process of homebrewing is a seriously immense task, and also one where truths are subjective. The concept of brewing is in itself fairly simplistic, but at each stage the choices you make will dramatically affect your beer. In ways you wouldn’t ever be able to just guess. Whereas some parts of the process are almost scientific, other parts are different for every homebrewer. One of the biggest variables, so to speak, is to no one’s surprise, the contentious issue of hops. People argue at length over when to add them, how to add them, how much to add, which types to add and so on and so on.
This brings me to my second brew. After getting over my explosive bottle disaster I knew one definite thing I wanted to try – dry hopping. Dry hopping sorts the men from the boys, or more literally, sorts the craft brewer from the non craft brewer. If there is one piece of advice I can give to budding homebrewers is to dry hop your next pale ale and see what an insane difference it makes. I came up with a red ale recipe, inspired by beers such as SW brewery’s Rogue hop and Rogue’s dry hopped red ale. The thing about dry hopped red ales that I love is the depth the malts bring, combined with that lovely IPA hopped aroma. I feel that’s why black IPAs have been so popular recently. We thirst for a twist to the standard hop kick we all love. Thankfully, this dry hopped attempt at beer came out head and shoulders above the first one. And not just because it didn’t explode. Of course, there was still a lot of room for improvement – the mouthfeel was quite watery and the hops could still pack more of a punch. But hey, if you got it spot on the second time you tried then homebrewing wouldn’t be any fun, now would it?
Sticking with the IPA with a twist category, I wanted my next brew to be made with rye. I pretty much blame this on Kernel, as their Rye PA is out of this world. I regularly drink Kernel IPAs and have come to understand their “language”, so to speak. But when I tried the Rye PA I was blown away by how much difference the rye brought to the flavour. It was earthy and dank like the london bridge tunnels it was brewed under. I wanted more. I wanted to make it. I dabbled with a boil in the bag method for this one (see this article for a bit more) and upped my dry hopping quantities. I would like to note that for each new brew I’ve bought a bunch more equipment, tweaked my procedures and generally evolved my methods. You find what you are comfortable with over time. I‘m still finding out. My Rye PA was a step up from the last brew, again. It had more defined flavours and my friends didn’t spit it out.
My fourth brew was an attempt at the popular black IPA. I had specifically bought a hop that I thought could work well in dry hopping darker beers. Pacific Gem smells uncannily like blackberries, which to me brings back nostalgic memories of my garden at home. One of the best pieces of advice I have heard is to think about beers like puddings. In their makeup beers are sweet and the characteristics that come out in the malts and hops are things you can easily associate with desserts. So when my mind thought of the dark roast, coffee, chocolate undertones of darker malts I went to the darker fruits that are most commonly relatable to them.
I didn’t have the right black carafe malts to do a genuine black ipa, instead I had chocolate malt. To focus more on the colour rather than the flavour I added the malts later on in the mash. This means their bitterness doesn’t infuse quite as fast. One thing to note, which I heard days after doing this beer, is that chocolate malt is actually an incredibly bad name for chocolate malt. The suggested name is ‘diner coffee’ malt, mainly as it has a strong harsh bitterness. If you’re after that elusive chocolate flavour don’t assume you’ll get it with chocolate malt. I also added some cold-brewed coffee to half of the batch. When it comes to home brewing, it’s great to be able to compare and contrast, divide and conquer. By splitting your batches and doing something different with each half you can try new things and maybe actually learn something in the process. It took a while for the coffee version to start tasting good. After about a month they were hitting the right notes and not just killing the hops with intense and bitter coffee.
So now we are nearly up to date. My whole homebrewing history. At the moment I’ve got one brew that is undergoing bottle conditioning. It’s a big ass stout, 9.6% alcohol. I used oatmeal and brewed it in a brand spanking new homemade mashtun. I also added old bourbon barrel chunks to half of it for a bit of oak ageing. Will this one be any good? Who the hell knows? But that’s the joy of it all, never quite knowing what you’re going to get. And then trying again and again, to figure it all out.