Beer, beer, glorious beer

I still haven’t bottled my current batch and although I had hoped to tonight it once again looks like it won’t happen. My current batch is an altbier – this is basically a dark lager – very much a German style. I chose this because I made the beer originally at the start of February when it was still quite cool. I usually do the fermentation in the subfloor under our house where it is dark and cool and peaceful and quiet – all good traits for a fermentation space. Now, of course, it is hitting 90 degrees outside, but the fermentation finished a while ago. I am trusting to the quality of my sterilization technique to preserve the beer since it has been sitting too long. Of course the natural anti-bacterial properties of whatever alcohol has been produced help out here. I am not a true beer geek so I don’t know the alcohol content. If I were I would have done a hydrometer reading and would know.

Anyway, making beer is easy – really easy. And it is close to foolproof, much cheaper than buying it and it tastes really good too. So what’s not to like?

I made the altbier sort of from a kit. I get my ingredients from Beer, Beer and More Beer in Concord. These guys are hardcore. Take a look at the semi-professional beer brewing equipment. Then realize that all you really need are a couple of plastic buckets with lids, some plastic pipe, an airlock, a big stockpot and bottles and caps and a capper for when it is all ready.

So the altbier I made uses a pound of Crystal Malt 40L and 4 ounces of chocolate malt, plus 8 pounds of German Pils malt extract. Right there you know this beer has a little bit of body to it. That is a more than normal amount of malt which means more than normal amount of alcohol and flavor producing sugars which in turn means more alcohol and more depth to the beer. The chocolate malt has nothing to do with ice cream nor with chocolate. It refers to color really and means that this is going to be a nice dark brown kind of beer. So what you do is that you basically set three gallons of water boiling in your stockpot and put your grains (that’s the malt but not the malt extract) in a mesh bag to steep in the water – just like tea. When the water gets close to boiling you fish the mesh bag out again and carefully squeeze all the tasty juices out of it into the pot again. I do that with teabags too, but I’m weird and like my tea REALLY strong. Then you stir in the malt extract. This is a thick syrupy substance that is made by doing what we did above with a lot more grains and then slowly reducing the liquid down to a syrup.

So what is going on here? First, I should explain about the malt. Malt in this case means malted barley grain. This is barley that is allowed to germinate (start sprouting) and is then roasted. This process results in a very surprising amount of caramelized sugar in the grain. Degrees of malt are obtained by amount of roasting. Dark malts are richer deeper browns and have more caramelization. Really dark malts are basically burnt – this is how you get your black beers like stouts and porters. Crystal malts are basically malts roasted to a theoretical ideal balance of caramel and sugar. There are hundreds – even thousands – of kinds of malts.

Once all your malt is in you leave it to boil – you want somewhere between a rolling boil and a simmer. You leave it typically for an hour. This does several things. It effectively blends flavors and cooks some of the components. It kills bad bugs. It is during the boil that you add hops. Technically speaking hops are not necessary in beer. They are a johnny-come-lately addition introduced about six hundred years ago to add flavor and to provide some astringent anti-bacterial properties. Remember that one of the reasons for beer’s popularity is that until the nineteenth century sanitation and water supplies were iffy at best. People knew that drinking beer or watered beer was safer than drinking water.

Anyway, hops are used for bittering – introducing that slightly bitter flavor that many beers have – and for aroma – a lovely herbal, flowery smell that can be very distinctive. Bittering hops get added earlier in the boil and my recipe called for 1 and a half ounces of northern brewer hops added at the start of the boil for bittering. It then asks for an ounce of hallertauer hops five minutes before the end of the boil for flavor and possibly some aroma and another ounce of hallertauer in the final minute of the boil purely for aroma. My kids positively HATE this stage of beer making – they don’t like the combination of malt and hop smells. Personally I quite like it but then I know where it is leading…

Now we have to cool everything off. This is the first dangerous stage because insidiously as temperatures drop air-borne microorganisms can drift into your wort (that’s the technical name for this malt/hop solution) and they could survive and grow. So typically you try to hurry cooling along. There are several ways to do this but I am not interested in the ways that involve additional equipment. So I do the necessary one – adding cold water to bring my wort up to five gallons. Five gallons is the typical homebrew recipe size – that’s 9 six packs for those who care. While I’m doing arithmetic I’ll do the cost equation too. Ingredients for this batch cost me $28. If I was penny pinching I could have gotten that down to $24. That’s $3.11 per six pack of high-quality beer.

Back to cooling. I have sanitized my six gallon food-grade plastic buckets and my airlock and the bucket lids and the spigot I have on my bucket. I do this the cheap way by soaking in a bleach solution and then thoroughly rinsing. I make the assumption that water that comes out of my tap is sanitized and safe. It works for me. So now I pour my wort into the plastic bucket and seal the lid on very carefully and attach the airlock but don’t put water in it yet. Now I go and put the bucket in my subfloor and leave it overnight. The lid means that I minimize airborne contamination and so far this has worked for me. Next day I can add the yeast. You can’t do this safely until the wort temperature drops below about 85 degrees because you’ll kill the yeast – and then no fermentation will occur and you won’t get beer. So I pry the lid off very carefully, add the yeast and stir rapidly with a sanitized long-handled spoon. This does two things. It distributes the yeast evenly and it aerates the solution which is something the yeast likes. My recipe called for some kind of pilsener yeast but that likes fermenting at 50 degrees or so and even in February I’m not confident of the temperature so I used a steam beer yeast. This is a kind of yeast developed in San Francisco that produces lager-like results at higher temperatures. Then you fill your airlock and leave everything for about three weeks – or in my case, seven weeks. You check it every day for the first week to make sure that it starts to bubble (fermentation occurs) and that it starts to taper off. Then again at three weeks to make sure it stopped fermenting and that it doesn’t smell skunky.

Yes, even with my surgical level of sterile technique (that’s a joke…my spouse who is a physician laughs hysterically at beermaking levels of sterile technique and never quite believes that it will work out alright) it is possible for the beer still to go off. I have made about ten or twelve batches of beer and have made one bad one in that time.

Next phase is bottling. This used to be harder and involved tricky things like syphoning. Now that I have buckets with built in spigots I simply decant from one bucket to another so as to lose most of the sediment (and also incorporate the corn sugar solution that is part of bottling) and let the new bucket settle overnight and then fill bottles from the spigot directly. You need to do this because there is so much sediment in the original beer bucket that it actually gets to higher than the level of the spigot (typically well over an inch).

You add four ounces of corn sugar boiled into a solution at the bottling stage so that inside the firmly sealed bottle the yeast will now generate carbon dioxide so your beer will be fizzy and have a head – yes, it also generates more alcohol at the same time.

Now for the big secret. It isn’t very stylish, but I now bottle my beer in recycled sparkling water bottles. They don’t need caps and capping machines. They are very cheap, they don’t break if you drop them, they work really well if you are careful screwing the lids on and you can give them to friends without fussing about getting your bottles back. Getting them ready is easy. Two trips in the dishwasher will do it. And you can use a mix of small (for individual) and large (for parties). The one downside is that I haven’t found a brand that has labels that come off easily so they look kind of tatty.

Give it a try. Beer, Beer and More Beer mail order everything. They have instructions on the website. They are nice on the phone. And if you don’t like it, you can reuse the plastic buckets for more mundane tasks…

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