The Beginner Brewer: June 2012

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Buying Brewing Stuff: Part II

The Not-So-Essentials: What you might want to have

In Part I of this post, I discussed essential homebrewing equipment; it covered the 100% essential kit you will need to produce great tasting homebrew. Today, we're going to look at five less-than-essential bits and pieces that make the life of a homebrewer a whole lot easier.

1. An Incredibly Large Whisk.

I know it sounds silly, but believe me, having a really big whisk is a godsend if you're going to be using dried malt extract (DME) in your brews. DME is a whole lot cheaper than liquid malt extract, so it makes sense to use. 

There's only one problem: DME is a very light powder that easily forms lumps. Having a massive whisk handy prevents that. 

It's also useful in creating a whirlpool effect once your boil is finished: The whirlpool moves all the spent hops and other bits you don't want in your beer to the centre of the brew kettle, making them easier to discard later.

2. An Immersion Wort Chiller.

Cooling down your boiled wort to a temperature friendly to yeast is an important step in making your own beer. The speed at which you can chill down your wort affects the taste of the final product; basically: the quicker, the better

But it's not easy to take 19 litres of boiling wort and get it down to 22 degrees Celsius in a hurry.

An immersion wort chiller will help with that. It's essentially a large coil of copper that you place inside the wort, and then run cold water through it. The water carries the heat away, and hey presto! you have chilled wort.

3. Grain Bags.

This one almost made it to my essentials list, and in some ways, you probably do want to get these right away. Grain bags are for keeping speciality grains that you will be steeping in your wort. The grains add a lot of flavour and complexity, and give you access to a very wide range of beer styles.

These are best made from muslin cloth, and are easy to make yourself (or have them made).

4. An Electronic Thermometer. 

The temperature at which you ferment your beer is perhaps one of the greatest contributors to its taste, but is also (largely) out of your control as a homebrewer. There are ways to control the fermenter's temp, but they are often inconsistent, and expensive. 

That means you will need to find a room or space in your home that can maintain a good fermentation temperature for the beer you want to make.

Using an electronic thermometer to track the ambient temperature of various places in your house is a good way of knowing where to ferment your beer.

5. A Beer Buddy.

Brewing beer can be a physically demanding thing, what with carrying big stock pots full of wort around and crushing grains with your bare hands (maybe not). 

Having a buddy to help with all of that is a great idea (not to mention bottling day--a whole different enchilada that). 

Of course, you can't buy these at the homebrew supply store (that would be creepy), but getting a friend involved is really handy, not to mention that you'll have someone who is very willing to taste your first creation!

If you found this post helpful, you may want to check out Part 1 of this instalment: essential brewing equipment.

Next Time: Now that we've got our equipment squared away, I'm going to take a look at some basic brewing techniques that should ensure that your first homebrew doesn't end up tasting like cat urine. Not a bad idea, I think you'd agree? Check it out by clicking on this link:

Robson's West Coast Ale

Robson's is a craft beer range from Shongweni Breweries in KwaZulu Natal. They make a range of beers, but today, I'm looking at their West Coast Ale.

Robson's West Coast Ale

(5% ABV; 550ml bottled)

Appearance: Amber, red

Aroma: Candy floss and spicy, earthy hops.

Taste: Shongweni's website says that the West Coast Ale features Northern Brewer and Cascade hops. That made me want to try this beer, since I love American hop varieties. Initial tastes are of Cascade's fruity flavours, but not as crisp and clear as one would want. After-taste is slightly bitter with some vegetable notes, which may indicate inappropriate hopping.

Overall, this is a somewhat confusing beer, since the presence of sugary crystal malt indicates an amber style, while Shongweni claims that it is both an ale and a lager. Perhaps they mean that this is a California Common (lager brewed at ale temperatures)? If so, it lacks the crisp notes of a lager, and doesn't quite fit the fruity flavour profiles of good American Ale.

While I wouldn't want to be a style-policeman when it comes to any beer, the West Coast Ale just doesn't come together in a well balanced way.

On a side note, it would be nice if more South African craft breweries followed the US trend of displaying more info on their beer labels (IBUs, hops used, malts used, style). This is a great way of educating the beer consumer and encouraging homebrewers to try their own versions.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Drayman's Jolly Monk

Drayman's is a German-inspired microbrewery in Silverton, Pretoria, run by brewmaster Moritz Kallmeyer. Today I'm reviewing his Rauchbier, the Jolly Monk. It's a seasonal brew available during the winter months here in South Africa.

Jolly Monk Rauchbier

(4% ABV; 1L bottled)

Appearance: Very dark amber
Aroma: Slight roasted malt and smoke

Taste: This beer starts off with roasted, BBQ-like flavours, ending in a smoky, char-grilled aftertaste. Prominent dark malts are also present, and the overall mouthfeel is very smooth and balanced. Unlike some darker beers you may be used to, rauchbiers use smoked malts, which are less bitter and more toffee-like in character.

Overall, I think this is a lovely craft beer, perhaps one of the best available at the moment in SA. It is light enough to be a good session beer, especially in colder climes without being light-weight. I'm happy to give this one the Beginner Brewer's first (!) award. The only problem is that it's not available all year round! Drayman's, please take note! 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Buying Brewing Stuff: Part I

For the beginner brewer, buying the right equipment can be a scary prospect. Like any hobby, there's plenty of opportunities to spend a pile of money and still need more stuff. So in this post, I'm going to cover some of the essential pieces of kit you need to get started.

The Bare Essentials: What you have to have

Before I start, let me be upfront about some of the assumptions I'm about to make. For a start, I'm going to assume that:
- You'll be brewing using malt extract
- You want to make great tasting beer
- You're willing to invest at least some money to buy essential, good quality equipment.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's get started!

1. The Brew Kettle

To make homebrewed beer, you are going to need to boil your wort. There's a cheap way of doing this: by boiling only part of the wort and then diluting with water to the right volume (19 litres). This allows you to use your existing cookware and stove-top. That's the plus side. On the down side, it's difficult to remain consistent with this technique and you just won't get the full flavour profile that you can from a full volume boil.

For these and other reasons not worth getting into right now, I would strongly recommend that you fork out the cash for a proper, large stock pot that has at least a 21-22 litre capacity. This allows you to do a full volume (or close to) boil, and believe me, your beer's flavour will be far the better for it.

If you go for the stock pot option, you can choose between aluminium or steel pots. A 21 litre stainless steel stock pot will easily set you back about a R1000, while an aluminium one will be far less expensive, at around R400 - R500 depending on size. While stainless steel is really nice and will last forever, aluminium heats more rapidly and can last a long time with the proper care.

2. The Burner

Great! You've got one of your most expensive pieces of kit out of the way. If you've got a stock pot of 20 plus litres capacity, your normal stove-top won't be able to achieve the proper temperature to ensure what is referred to as a 'rolling boil'. So unless you own a really cool, expensive gas stove with high pressure capacity, you will need a high pressure gas burner (pictured).

A high pressure burner converts the normal low pressure gas from a standard LPG cylinder into high pressure with a high pressure manifold (the red thingamabob pictured). Try to buy a burner with a stand: you won't damage whatever surface you place it on. With a medium size high pressure burner, you will easily bring 20+ litres of water to the boil quite rapidly, and achieve the ever-important 'rolling boil' that vastly improves the flavour of beer by boiling off nasty tasting compounds found inside wort.

If you're a bit of an equipment junky, beware not to buy too large a burner. All burners need to be well ventilated. Also remember that you only need to achieve a rolling boil for 21-25 litres of liquid. You do not need a burner that can smelt steel or be seen from space when in operation. A burner will set you back about R200 - R400, depending on the model.

3. The Fermenter and Bottling Bucket

Once you've got your wort boiled and cooled down, you'll need to stick it in a sealed vessel to start its journey towards becoming beer.

While a lot of brewing books and web resources advocate glass carboys for this purpose, they are hellishly difficult to come by here in South Africa. You can have one made, but unless you commonly have the sort of spare cash lying around sufficient to fund revolutions, I wouldn't recommend it.

Instead, you need to buy a food-grade plastic fermenting bucket or carboy. These can be purchased at homebrew shops or from food-grade plastic suppliers.

Please make sure to buy food-grade plastic. This will keep oxygen out (O2 is not good for fermenting beer), and can be cleaned properly to avoid bacterial contamination.

Don't skimp on this! It makes no sense to brew up a great beer and then stick it in some cheap and nasty plastic bucket to ferment.

Some pointers: Buy two fermenting vesselsThe other fermenter will be your bottling bucket

Fortunately, plastic fermenters are relatively cheap (about R80 for one) so buying two won't break the bank. Also, it's a good idea to buy a fermenter with a pre-fitted tap, which allows for easy sampling of your brew.

A final addition to your fermenter will be the airlock, which is also known as a bubbler. These devices are filled with sterile water (or vodka!), and lets the CO2 out while preventing contaminants from coming in.

4. Measurement Tools

You can get away with guesswork when it comes to home brewing, and some homebrewers are amazingly successfully using 'Kentucky windage'.

On the other hand, it is pretty nifty to track the progress of your brew more accurately, while also feeling like a mad scientist, so I recommend investing in some basic measuring equipment. You will need an immersion thermometer and a hydrometer (pictured). The hydrometer measures the gravity of your beer and is used to track fermentation and eventual alcohol level.

You will also need a test tube of some kind. Altogether, it should cost you about R200.

5. Racking

Once you're beer is fully fermented, you will need to transfer it to a bottling bucket, and then into your bottles.This is called 'racking' and is done with a racking cane. You can make you own by filling a rigid food-grade plastic tube with sugar, heating a section about two-thirds of the way up, and then bending the tube into a cane shape. You then connect this to some flexible food-grade hose, and viola: A racking cane! Using it is a bit tricky, but it gets easier with practice.

If you want to save yourself a whole bunch of trouble and time, I'd recommend investing in a auto-syphon (pictured), which is one of the cleverest little inventions since magnetic screwdrivers and those little things they use to close bread bags with.

An auto-syphon will set you back about R200.

Expensive I know, but it saves you lots of frustration in a phase of beer-making that is the least enjoyable: bottling.

5. Bottles

Finally, you will need containers for your newly made beer. For this, you should use brown glass beer  bottles or plastic bottles (also brown). I'm somewhat reluctant to use plastic bottles because they allow more oxygen in, which can spoil beer, and cannot be re-used as often as glass. 

In my experience,the best bottles to use are 750ml or 500ml brown glass bottles.

I'd avoid the more common 340ml bottles for one very important reason: you are going to produce 18-19 litres of beer per brew, which translates into 52-54 340ml bottles to fill! This is a pain, and I'd rather do something more pleasant, like say, having dental surgery without anaesthetic, than fill 50-odd bottles of beer.

If you use 750ml bottles (quarts), you only need to fill 24 bottles--not great, but much better than 50!

Fortunately for South Africans, 750ml quart bottles are quite easy to come by. Now if you are totally cheap, you can try to get free, used bottles from your local liquor store. If you like cleaning out cigarette butts and unidentified gunk from empties, then go right ahead.

If not, there is a far easier and more pleasant method: create your own ! If you're in a hurry, invite some friends over and ask them to help you with your brewing by helping drink for a good cause!

Good tip: once a bottle has been emptied, immediately fill it with warm water and rinse a few times--it will make cleaning far easier later on!

Another tip: buy a plastic crate of quarts, or if you've bought them piecemeal, buy a crate from your local liquor store (for about R10). They are great for storing both empty and filled bottles, and prevent accidental breakage (and carnage).

6. Bottling equipment

Finally, you will need some new bottle caps and a capper to seal your new homebrew. Bottle caps come with nifty oxygen-leaching liners, and are quite cheap (about R50 for 100). A bottle capper will set you back about R200, but should last forever. You'll also need to get a bottle brush, at about R30.

So that's it. This is the absolute basic equipment you need to start brewing properly. There are odds and ends that will come in handy later, but I'll cover those in future posts.

So before I close off, let's take another look at your total initial investment:

- Stock Pot (aluminium): R 450-00
- Gas Burner: R 400-00
- Fermenters x 2: R 160-00
- Thermometer, Hydrometer, Test tube: R 200-00
- Auto-syphon: R 200-00
- 24 750ml bottles (plus beer!): R 230-00
- Caps, capper and brush:  R 280-00

Total: R 1920-00

That may sound like a lot, but let's put that into some perspective. It's way cheaper than a new set of decent golf clubs, and about the same amount you would spend on taking the family out to a restaurant 3 or 4 times.

The majority of the equipment above will also last you for years (including the bottles). From here on in, it only gets cheaper.

Next Time: I'll cover some additional odds and ends that make a homebrewer's life far easier in: Buying Brewing Stuff: Part II--What you might want to have

Monday, 18 June 2012

Review: Brewers & Union Lager Lineup

Brewers & Union is a South African label showcasing the craft brewing of the Gabriel Collective, who do most of their brewing in Europe. B&U also has a pub/restaurant in Cape Town, but their beers are available throughout South Africa.

The Brewers & Union range of off-centre lagers are a great introduction to craft beer for the uninitiated, since most beer drinkers are familiar with the more mass-produced commercial lagers. If you want more of your friends to get into craft, I'd recommend Brewers & Union as a perfect place to start.

You can visit the B&U website by clicking here. Now let's get into the beers!

B&U Unfiltered Lager

(5% ABV; 500ml bottled)

Appearance: Hazy light gold.
Aroma: Clean, spicy hops.
Taste: This is a very crisp, lovely little lager with the yeast still in the bottle, giving it a hazy appearance. Look out for initial flavours of honey and spices, with an after-taste of crisp, hoppy bitterness. The suspended yeast lends a nice bread-like flavour as well. This is a well-balanced beer that leaves most commercial lagers far behind. Try it!

B&U Beast of the Deep Helles Bock

(6.5% ABV; 500ml bottled)

The Bocks are a sub-variety of lager beers that generally are higher in alcohol and feature more robust flavour profiles--perfect for cold winter days.

Appearance: Clear pale straw.
Aroma: Fruity, slight malt.
Taste:  The Beast of the Deep (nice name that) is a full bodied beer with a toasty flavour, and slight marmalade or fruit cake notes, only not as cloyingly sweet. While this is technically not 100% to style, it is still a flavourful, solid winter warmer. After-taste is slightly sweet, but pleasant.

B&U Berne Unfiltered Amber Lager

(5% ABV ; 500ml bottled)

Appearance: Hazy amber, rich orange-red.
Aroma: Clean malt
Taste: Initial tastes are malty and rich, with a slight toasty flavour. The Berne is a great beer to introduce to people who are only used to yellow fizzy stuff. It's not exceedingly weird, but is definitely different and interesting. This beer has a great mouthfeel: silky and complex. It is a great accompaniment to spicy food or rich, buttery sauces. A slight toffee after-taste rounds out what is a refreshing, yet full-flavoured beer that deserves several tastings. 

B&U Dark Lager

(5% ABV; 500ml bottled)

Appearance: Dark red cola.
Aroma: Slight roasted malt.
Taste: This is an interesting lager that has a crisp flavour and slight notes of roasted malt and liquorice. Despite the dark malts, it is a relatively light tasting lager, and will be refreshing on a hot day. Aftertaste is very crisp; almost non-existent. Overall a solid offering, adding something special to the B&U lineup.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Why I'm not a Full-Grain Snob

I started the Beginner Brewer blog to not only celebrate beer geekdom but also to help novice homebrewers with solid, no-nonsense advice. Unfortunately, there is a lot of nonsense floating around out there, waiting to ambush the unwitting beginner brewer.

One particularly common bit of hogwash is what I like to call: Full Grain Snobbery  (FGS).

 Full Grain Snobbery (FGS) and why it's bad

If you're a new homebrewer you will undoubtedly start with extract brewing because of one or all of the following reasons:

  • You'll need less starting equipment 
  • It requires less starting moola
  • It takes less time
  • It's easier because you need to worry about less variables

If the above reasons appeal to you, then extract brewing is a good option. However, start surfing the web homebrewing forums and you will also come across folks who seem to reserve a special disdain for extract brewing.

I've seen it a lot on the web whenever a brewer asks a question related to an extract homebrew that has a problem. You won't have to wait long before some smart ass posts something along the following lines:

Why not switch to full grain and gain full control over your brewing? 

I don't know about you, but that ain't exactly helpful. What happens is that the novice brewer who posted the question probably won't post again, thinking that they are somehow not doing 'real' brewing. And the FGS? I'm not sure what measure of satisfaction he or she gets out of doing this. I mean, really? Really?

FGS is just another variant of know-it-all-ism that you probably get in most hobbies. I'm pretty sure that you get similar unhelpful schmucks in hobbies like model airplanes and cheese-making ("What? you used the Roquefort strain for a Cheddar! Amateur!").

Why Extract Brewing is nothing to be ashamed of

Here are three reasons why you should never be ashamed of brewing with extract and why we should not tolerate all this FGS nonsense:
  1. You can still make excellent beer with extracts that impress the judges (I have)
  2. Extracts are getting more varied, allowing extract brewers to brew a wide array of styles
  3. There are award-winning professional microbrewers who also use extract. Don't believe me? Check out the Pacific Coast Brewery. Yep, these guys' extract beer is so crap that they've been winning silver and bronze medals at the Great American Beer Festival for years.

So, don't feel ashamed or shy to tell people you brew with extract. Be proud. Be unashamed. Wear interesting bow ties (okay, maybe not that last one).

Don't be a FGS

My basic message for this post is this: Don't be a beer snob. 

Allow for diversity in enjoying this delightfully human invention we call beer.

If you eventually want to brew full grain, go for it. There are a lot of advantages to going Full Grain.

If you're happy to brew extract all your life, power to you! You are going to have some fantastic beers to sample in the years to come. 

If you are a full grain brewer, don't be a FGS; rather help novice homebrewers find their stride. And if you are a snob, email Don from Pacific Coast Breweries and tell him why he isn't a 'real brewer'

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Skinny on Making Beer

If you're going to get into homebrewing, it's a pretty good idea to know the basics of how beer is made. There are a LOT of sources out there on the web that show this process in great detail, so I'm not going to cover all the deep detail here (I'll list some of the best sites at the end of this post). Let's just look at the bare basics: the skinny on making beer.

Barley before maltsters get to it

Step 1: The Grains Have It

Beer is made primarily of two ingredients: Grains and Water. For grains, the big commercial breweries use corn and malted barley to produce lots of fizzy yellow beer (mostly lagers).

Corn is used mainly because it is cheaper than barley, and many beer geeks, microbrewers and homebrewers believe that it adds a distinctive and undesirable 'adjuncty' taste to beers.

Homebrewers don't make zillions of gallons of beer, so cost is not necessarily an issue when it comes to your grain bill (the grains you'll use for making beer). That means that you can pretty much avoid the cheap adjuncts and focus more on quality ingredients.

Also, I recommend that beginner brewers use malt extract to get started. Extract is a syrup (or dry powder) made from malted barley and using it cuts out time, money, and complication for someone starting out in the hobby.

 In fact, extract-made beers can be every bit as good as their full-grain equivalents (more on this in an upcoming post).

Step 2: Malting & Mashing

This step is taken care of for you when you use extracts, but for full grain brewers, the barley is partially germinated by Maltsters (think grain wizards) and then the malted barley is mashed--heated at different temperatures and for varying duration in water--to activate enzymes in the barley and extract sugars in liquid form; this is called sweet wort (sorry about all the jargon). Sweet wort is concentrated to make malt extract.

Hops: yummy!

Step 3: The Brewing

Making beer is relatively straightforward from this point. The malt extract is added to water to dilute, brought to a boil, and hops are added for bittering and flavour.

There are a few nuances in this step that I'll cover in future posts, but that's basically it.

After 60-90 minutes of vigorous boiling, the wort (what your concoction is called) is cooled. Then some magic happens.

Step 4: Magical Yeast

Once the wort is at the right temperature, the brewer adds yeast (there are many different types, adding yet more flavour) and the wort now starts its fermentation and journey to becoming beer.

Essentially, the yeast converts the sugars into two things: alcohol and CO2. After about 1-2 weeks, the beer is ready to be bottled.

Step 5: Bottling and Drinking

Naturally brewed beer takes about 2 weeks to mature in the bottle, carbonate itself, and is then ready to drink.

And that's it! Sure, there are a lot more nuance than is described above, but that's all part of the fun that I hope you'll be having in exploring this amazing hobby of homebrewing.

As promised, here are a couple of useful links that show you more of the detailed bits of beer-making:

Next Time: I'll have a look at the concerning phenomenon of Full Grain Snobbery, and tell you why you shouldn't be too worried about it.

{Picture credits: Barley by net_efekt; Hops by Martin LaBar}

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Homebrewing: Is it for me?

Pale Ale

Homebrewing is a fast growing hobby, especially here in South Africa. Maybe you've decided to try your hand at brewing, so it would be a good idea to look at good and bad reasons to become a homebrewer. After all, this can turn into a bit of an obsession!

As a psychologist and homebrewer, I've often contemplated the deeper, darker motivations that make people decide to occupy their time with a hobby (not really, but it sounded good!). Each brewer brings a unique motivation to the hobby, and here are a few to guide you along (or away!):

5 good motivations for the beginner brewer:

- The Mad Scientist: you like experimenting with chemicals in your basement, and now want to drink them
- The Chef: you're into food and drink, and want to extend your culinary skills to beer making
- The Beer Geek: you've visited the microbreweries, you know what an IBU is, and now want to start making your own
- The Beer Engineer: you like crafting machinery and gadgets at home, and don't mind a few pints while you're at it
- The Beernaut: you want to explore the limits of beer, from obscure Belgian lambics to recreating ancient Sumerian ales

4 rather bad motivations for the beginner brewer:

- The Alcoholic: you think that homebrewing guarantees an unlimited supply of cheap booze. 
- The Cheapskate: you want to pay less for mass-produced fizzy yellow beer by making your own.
- The Bathroom Brewer: you think that homebrewing is a fun alternative use for your bathtub and believe that good hygiene is for "sissies"
- The Job Seeker: you think that homebrewing will lead to fame and fortune as a professional brewer. (Well, sometimes, it might, but that shouldn't be your only reason).

Next time..

The Skinny on Making Beer I'll look at the absolute basics of how beer is made and how you'll be making it soon!
{Picture  by  mfajardo CC BY 2.0}