I spent my Sunday afternoon, with a few miscellaneous interruptions (life as usual), engaging in one of my favorite, most rewarding activities: brewing beer. To be brewed: a kit from Northern Brewer, an India Pale Ale style called Three Hearted Ale. This obviously is their attempt to replicate Bell's Brewery's famous Two Hearted Ale, named after a Hemingway short story, "The Big Two-hearted River", which I have not yet read.
Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an experienced, expert brewer. If you want to read a blog by someone who knows what he is doing, check out Floridacracker's friend, Thunder Dave.
The first step was to put a gallon and a half of our sparkling clear well water into a large stock pot. While heating the water on the stove, I steeped some crushed grains in a mesh bag, somewhat like making tea. The grains were several varieties of malted barley. If I were a serious brewer I would start completely from grains, but I have neither the time nor the facilities for all grain brewing...yet. But I like recipes that call for steeped grains, which add fresh flavor and body.
I removed the grains before the water came to a boil. Then it was time for the malt extract, a thick, syrupy liquid derived from malted barley. This particular recipe called for over nine pounds; the more malt extract, the higher the alcohol content in the end. Three Hearted Ale is no "lite" beer! After adding the malt extract, I returned the mixture, now properly called "wort", to a boil.
And now for my favorite part...the hops. These are not whole hops I am holding in my hand, nor is it some kind of rabbit chow. Hops are commonly sold as pellets, which can be freeze-dried and vacuum packed, with a much longer shelf life than fresh hops. This particular variety is called Centennial; there are many different varieties, with subtle flavor and aroma differences. Some are more suited for adding at the beginning of the boil (bittering hops), while some are best suited to add aroma at the end of the boil (aroma hops). I don't know all the details; they all smell heavenly to me. I hear they are good as a relaxing herb. I sleep pretty soundly after a couple of hoppy ales. There are two kinds of beer drinkers: those who don't care for excess in hops, and those who can't get enough of them. I fall into the latter category.
So you bring the whole thing to a boil after the first hop addition, watching to make sure it doesn't boil over with all the converting proteins and oils, then the wort boils for an hour. This, in addition to killing off any wild yeasts or bacteria that might be present, causes subtle chemical changes in the malt and hops. I nearly failed my college organic chemistry course, so I can't tell you exactly what happens. During this time, in the case of this particular recipe, I added even more hops at later times in the boil; the later you add hops, the more "aroma" and less "bittering" they provide. I don't know how they figured all this out.
After sixty minutes, the wort is done boiling, and the objective is to cool it below 90 degrees F as quickly as possible, to avoid contamination. There are many fancy devices on the market now to accomplish this; my facilities and methods are fairly primitive. My well water stays cool, so I just filled the wash tub and ran fresh water in there once or twice. A floating thermometer told me when it was cool enough.
Meanwhile, I added about 3 1/2 gallons of cold fresh water to a specialized plastic bucket with a hole in the lid and a spigot near the bottom. When the wort was cool enough, I poured it into the bucket (primary fermenter) and cold water. At this point, I took a small sample and poured it into the tube on the left. With an instrument called a hydrometer, shown mostly submerged in the sample, I measured what is called the original gravity of the wort. Basically speaking, this measures relatively how much raw stuff you have in the beer that will be converted to alcohol. The higher the original gravity, the higher the finished alcohol content. This one measured out at about 1.060, which means this is going to be a fairly potent brew. Two Hearted is about six percent, so I'm guessing this will be in that neighborhood.
To the left of the hydrometer is the yeast packet. The yeast culture comes in a specialized package; a dry packet of yeast can be used in beer, but these state-of-the-art packets are much more reliable. There are even specialized strains of yeast for different styles of beer. About three hours before brewing, you clap the packet between your hands, which breaks an inner seal and mixes the pure yeast culture with a yeast nutrient. The package swells as the yeast comes alive. The advantage over dry yeast is that the yeast is already actively metabolizing and reproducing when you add it to the beer.
Finally, after the yeast is added, it's time to seal up the fermenter. This is the air lock, which is designed to keep a layer of water between the air and the wort, preventing contamination by bacteria or wild yeast. As of today, carbon dioxide is bubbling through the airlock at a rate of easily 30 times per minute; the yeast is doing its job! I'm keeping the fermenter in my cook shed; hopefully it will maintain the ideal temperature above 50 degrees for an ale.
Why all this work, you may ask? I did the figuring in my head; the kit cost $35, which sounds high, but the price per six pack will probably end up at between 4 and 5 dollars, compared with 8-9 dollars for Two Hearted. And, there's always the satisfaction of learning the process by doing it myself.
This, incidentally, is my 500th post here at SCA. How appropriate, to celebrate the domestic art of brewing a beverage so near and dear to my heart!