The Beginner Brewer: October 2012

Monday, 22 October 2012

Is South African Craft Beer Too Tame?

I've recently been to quite a few craft beer fests in and around Jo'burg and Cape Town.

Two things are clear:

  1. The South African craft beer scene is definitely taking off, and that is a fabulous thing indeed.
  2. SA Craft beers are, sometimes, surprisingly tame.
So before I get a lot of people upset at me (although, by all means..), let me qualify my second statement. There are more than a few really well made, well balanced beers out there made by South African artisan brewers. I've reviewed some of them in this blog. By tame, I don't necessarily mean a lack of hoppiness (but it is that, too). Tame also refers to a restricted variety of beer styles and ingredients.

Where have all the styles gone?
In South Africa, there seems to be a curious lack of the kind of craft beers that are very common in other countries. 

I mean, where are the hop monster IPAs and Imperial Stouts? Where are the high ABV Belgian hybrids? Where are beers that have interesting, non-traditional ingredients in them? The left-of-centre styles? There are exceptions, of course. Three Skulls has a Saisson, Devil's Peak BC has some interesting stuff going on. But I don't think this is the rule.

It's surprising how many of our local craft breweries have come out of the gates with lagers, when most craft brewers elsewhere (in equally lager-dominated markets, like the US) shun the style or leave it for much, much later in their evolution.

One of the advantages of being a small volume brewer has to be that you don't need to follow the macrobrewer's schedule of consistent, middle-of-the-road beer making.

And yet, that's what you find with all -too-often regularity when visiting local craft beer festivals.

I'm not entirely sure why this is, but I've got at least two theories:
  1. South African microbrewers are overly concerned about the dominance of lagers in the larger population. Unless South Africans are uniquely equipped with taste buds that only respond to yellow fizzy stuff, there really is no reason to believe that the average beer lover won't take to more extreme flavors and styles. In fact, South Africans do love extreme flavours in their food and wine (think of super-hot curries and single varietal wines, like Malbec that have done well here). While it makes sense to have a "gateway" beer in your line-up; say a blonde ale, surely that should lead to more interesting beers down the line?
  2. The Reinheitsgebot. The German purity laws of 1487 are often touted by some micro and macro brewers as a seal of quality. These laws dictate that beer may only be made with water, barley, and hops. But why are brewers so enamoured with this medieval practice? Just across the border from Germany, the Belgians have been making beer for as long, but have made beer with a much wider variety of ingredients. Nobody has yet complained about how bad Belgian beer is.
Belgian beers: not known for being tame

I hope that SA craft brewers will take a slightly wider view of beer and what the drinking public will approve of. I hope that the Reinheitsgebot will remain where it belongs: in the history books.

Here's to more interesting beers. Cheers!


{Photo credits: Belgian beers: visitflanders; Empties: NgyenDai; all CC BY-NC-SA 2.0}

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Bottling Basics (without the Blues)

You've fermented your first brew (to check out a step-by-step how-to guide to making your first brew, click here). You've obsessively checked the bubbler and fretted about the ambient temperature in your fermentation room (you have right?).

Now comes that stage of the process that most homebrewers refer to as: hell on earth. Or, bottling.

Maybe bottling isn't so bad. Maybe I'm making too much of it. Then again, maybe not. The truth is, bottling is the less fun part of making your own beer, but it does need to be done right. Don't ruin your brew at this late stage! Follow the steps below, and you won't.

First Step: Prep

You can save yourself a whole lot of time by making sure you start with clean bottles. Before bottling day, it's a good idea to wash your bottles (you'll need 24 quarts or about 58 330ml bottles for an average 19 litre brew) with some dishwasher powder and hot water.

Make sure to rinse them very thoroughly. Put them away to dry.

Test your beer one last time to check if it's fermented out to your target final gravity. If you've been using the Beginner Brewer Best Bitter recipe, the final gravity you're aiming for is around 1.011 or so.

Bottling Day

The day has arrived! The best thing to start with on bottling day is to get all your equipment cleaned and ready. Here's what you'll need:

  • Bottling Bucket: this is a fermenter-sized bucket that you'll transfer the fermented beer into
  • Siphon: your auto-siphon is indispensable for bottling day
  • Bottle caps (also called crown caps): these have nifty little liners that leach oxygen out of the headspace in your bottled beer.
  • Capper: to crimp the bottle caps onto the bottles and seal the beer
  • Priming sugar: you'll need glucose or dextrose for this. The Best Bitter recipe calls for 105g of priming sugar. The priming sugar carbonates the beer in the bottle--cool!
  • A measuring jug or other container to place your caps in for easy access

Get things sanitized!
Again, cleaning and sanitizing are incredibly important. All of the above kit has to be cleaned and sanitized! Don't skimp and don't cut corners. It's insane to ruin your beer at this stage because you couldn't be bothered to keep things clean.

Step 1 

Sanitize your bottles. Soak them in sanitizer (hopefully you're using a no-rinse sanitizer like Perisan) for at least 20 minutes.

Crate those bottles
With 24-58 bottles, you've got a potential breakage disaster on your hands. To prevent this, place them into crates once sanitized  Crates are also useful when you start to fill your bottles, and prevent them from falling over and making a mess.

Step 2

Rack your fermented beer into the bottling bucket. Before you do this, boil the priming sugar in a cup or two or water for 10 minutes to sanitize it. Then decant the syrup into the bottling bucket.

Set up your siphon so that the beer itself will kind of "whirlpool" into the bottling bucket and mix in with the syrup. Make sure your fermenter is placed above your bottling bucket, and then siphon the beer into the bottling bucket.

Fermented beer.
The ring around the top is normal:
it's spent yeast
Tip: Try to keep the end of the siphon about an inch or two above the bottom of the fermenter. You don't really want all the yeast and hops residue in your final beer, now do you?

Step 3

Now that your beer is mixed in with the priming sugar, it's time to bottle the beer. Clean out your siphon and sanitize it again.

Place your crated bottles underneath the bottling bucket, and stick the siphon tube to the bottom of the bottle you're going to fill. Why? During bottling, it is really important to keep oxygen out of your beer. Oxygenating your beer at this stage leads to off tastes like paper and cardboard. 

Bottles with un-crimped caps
Fill the bottle to the top and crimp the tube with your thumb and forefinger. When you pull out the tube, the beer should be filled to within an inch or so from the top. Place a bottle cap on the bottle and repeat until all your bottles are filled.

Step 4

Finally, crimp the bottle caps with your capper. Most cappers have magnets to hold the cap in place. 

Capper in action
Make sure that the caps have been properly crimped. If you're not sure, test it for leaks and re-do if it's not seated properly.

Step 5

Storage: store your newly packaged bottles in a cool, dark place for about 2 weeks. This will allow the beer to naturally carbonate and condition in the bottle. After 2 weeks, toss some in the fridge and try them out--congratulations, you've just made your own beer!