Brew #4 – My First Malt Extract Brew!

So, as you may already know, for Brew #4 I decided to eschew the “just add water” style beer kits that I’ve used so far to give me a taste for brewing, and have a crack at a malt-extract recipe from my handy CAMRA book.

I don’t want to re-produce the recipe in full here as you should really go and buy the book if you’re interested, but for the purposes of this article it’s sufficient to say that I needed:

  • Two cans of pale malt extract
  • some crystal malt
  • four different types of hops (three for bittering and one for aroma)
  • some Irish moss.

As I’ve previously noted, it’s also quite important to remember to buy some yeast … in this instance I’ve used dried English ale yeast.

The basic brew steps were taken from John Palmer’s How To Brew and are described roughly below:

  1. Cleanse and sterilise everything (spoon, thermometer, measuring jug, fermenter etc)
  2. Bring 5 litres of water to a temperature of 70 C (+- 7 C)
  3. Put the crystal malt into a muslin bag and place in water, dipping occasionally like a big tea bag
  4. After 30 minutes, remove crystal malt tea bag (squeezing remaining drops out), pour in another 5 litres of water and stir in one can of pale malt extract
  5. Bring water to a boil, continuing to stir to ensure no malt extract sticks to the bottom of the pot
  6. While waiting for water to boil, rehydrate yeast (pour onto 35 C pre-boiled water in sterilised jug, wait 15 mins, stir gently, wait 15 mins, then pitch within next 30 mins)
  7. Wait for hot break to occur (excess of foam, potential boil overs and proteins bubbling around in liquid – remember at the last minute to add a couple of copper pennies to prevent boilovers) then add bittering hops
  8. Continue to boil and stir occasionally for 45 minutes, then add bittering hops for a further 15 mins
  9. 5 minutes from end of boil, add second can of pale malt extract, stir vigorously to prevent sticking and burning
  10. Fill sink with cold water and ice, transfer pot to sink. Stir wort gently to maximise the amount of liquid touching the cold sides and speed up cooling. Simultaneously run more cold water outside the pot to keep this cool, ensuring that none splashes into the pot. (Wort reached target temperature of approx. 25 C in under 30 mins.)
  11. Transfer entire wort (including hops and, erm, a couple of copper pennies!) to sterilised fermenter. Pour back and forth once more to increase oxygen content in wort.
  12. Violently add 11 further litres of water bringing liquid volume up to 20 litres total.
  13. CHECK OG USING HYDROMETER!!! (Woohoo – I remembered…!)
  14. Pitch yeast.
  15. Please fermenter in warm, dark cupboard and leave for two weeks.

So far so good, although there were a few notes from the brewing process which I’ll jot down here and which may or may not impact the final brew.

Timings

I bought a new 3 gallon pot for boiling the wort in which has a raised mound in the center and so only has direct contact with the stove top around the edges.

With a gas oven, this would not be an issue, but we have an electric hob, and the raised mound is almost the size of our largest hob ring, meaning that less direct heat is applied to the bottom of the pot. This in turn means that simple things like boiling water took a lot longer than expected, and the maximum boil temperature was just under 100 C.

This shouldn’t have any impact from a pasteurisation or sterilisation point of view, but it is worth noting. I felt (and admittedly I have no frame of reference) that the hot break was gentler than I was expecting – I certainly was never in danger of a boil over which is marked as a very real danger by John Palmer.

Lesson: To reduce boil times in future, I can either buy a new pot or straddle two hobs to ensure that more direct heat gets through to the wort.

Rehydrating Yeast

Partly because of the extended boil times, partly because of my unfamiliarity with the boil process, the yeast was fully rehydrated over an hour before pitching. I have no idea what impact this would have, although John Palmer does specify that “for best results” the yeast should be pitched within half an hour of rehydrating.

Amount of Yeast

As a secondary yeast related issue, the packet of yeast stated on it that 1g / litre should be used. As this was an 11g packet, and I was preparing 20 litres of beer, I felt I should have had a second packet of yeast.

Unfortunately, the site I bought the yeast from did not specify this and by the time I’d noticed I was halfway through the boil.

Despite this, the packet was still much larger than the usual kit packets of yeast, so I’m hoping for at least similar results to my previous brews.

Lesson: Leave rehydrating dried yeast until the hops go in, or use liquid yeast. I think next time round I’m going to go with option B to increase the amount of yeast strains available, and also to prevent the hassle of having to perform the rehydration process…

Copper Pennies

Although I scrubbed and sterilised a couple of copper pennies before I threw them into the boil pan, they still weren’t what I would call entirely clean looking.

As I poured the cooled wort from the pan into the fermented, I temporarily forgot about the pennies and was more focussed on aerating the wort as I poured it violently back and forth between the two containers.

It wasn’t until I’d pitched the yeast that I spotted one of the three pennies still sat in the boil pot. This means that two are still in with the wort.

Hopefully boiling them for an hour has sufficiently sterilised them that they won’t affect the taste of the beer…

Lesson: Find a way to remove the coppers before cooling the wort (?!) or leave them out of the brewing process entirely.

Watch out for drips…

Another environment specific issue this one, but probably worth mentioning in case anyone else has a similar problem: above our hob we have an extractor fan. Despite this being switched on during the boil, it seems that so much water was evaporated that at one point it was condensing on the extractor fan grill and dripping back into the boiling wort.

Although we keep the extractor fan relatively clean, it’s still been in place for a few years and I would not, for example, eat my dinner off it!

Again, only time will tell whether this has added any unexpected flavours into the brew. I’m reasonably confident that the boiling of the wort will have killed any bacteria (as is the point) but if any grease or dust was washed into the boil pot – well, we’ll see I suppose!

Lesson: Regularly sponge down the extractor fan grill to prevent droplets forming and dripping into the wort.

 

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Brew #3 – Ultimate Brewery Classics Oktoberfest

So – after success on Brew #2 where next for number three?

Well with October coming up, it only seemed right to put together some kind of Oktoberfest ale.

Not feeling brave enough to branch out into malt extract brewing just yet with only one successful kit brew under my belt, I had a good browse round the various online brew shops to find another kit and finally settled on the Ultimate Brewery Classics Oktoberfest Special Beer Kit.

By this point the brewing process was already starting to feel familiar. I ran through the sterilisations and rehydrated the dried yeast packet that came with the kit.

One note on the yeast rehydration: the bible suggests boiling water then allowing it to cool to around 35-40 degrees C before pouring in the dried yeast. I was short on time and growing impatient and – possibly worse – had no thermometer available to tell me the temperature of the water. Best guess, I added the yeast when the water was still around 70-80 deg C. I have no idea what this will do to the yeast or the flavour of the ale, only time will tell at this stage, however having just bottled the ale I can confirm that the gravity of the ale did drop to expected levels so I can’t imagine its activity has been too heavily compromised…

I boiled a couple of litres of purified tap water and mixed these with the pre-hopped malt extracts as per the kit’s instructions, topped up with bottled water to the 34 pint level, added the hop extracts and stirred vigorously to add as much oxygen as possible before pitching the rehydrated yeast. Then I stuck it in the kitchen cupboard for two weeks to ferment.

At the last minute I remembered to take the gravity reading – OG 1.045. Admittedly this was just after I’d pitched the yeast. I’m not sure how quickly this stuff works so will have to assume that the “real” OG is around here or maybe slightly higher…

During fermentation, a large amount of malt stuck to the side of the fermenter giving the whole thing a cloudy appearance. This worried me initially, particularly when I took my first gravity reading a week in and a large amount of malt extract came out with the ale. I was worried that the extract wouldn’t settle and I’d be left with lumpy beer – not a desireable outcome!

Fortunately, my subsequent gravity readings were a lot clearer and have settled my mind a little.

Another point to note was that the fermentation didn’t appear to start until about 24 hours after the mixing was complete. I was worried at first that the yeast may have been damaged by the high temperature of the rehydration, but a little patience restored my faith…!

A first for me this time was to taste the samples I’ve been taking to test the gravity. For the first couple of brews I’d just let it do it’s thing, but I realised this time that it’s just a food product and you can get a good idea of where the ale is going flavour-wise by tasting as you go. It’s been fun seeing how the flavour develops over time – this ale is definitely sweeter and already more full-flavoured than the St. Peter’s.

The ale was bottled yesterday after just over two weeks in the fermenter, with priming sugar solution added directly to the fermenter half an hour before bottling. I’ll test one bottle after a fortnight, but leave the majority for four weeks before drinking to reach “full” maturity. I’ll miss Oktoberfest by a few weeks, but at least I’ll still get to drink the beer!

Brew#2 – St. Peters Ruby Red Ale Beer Kit

So after the crushing disappointment of my first brew, the bar was set fairly low for improvement.

After learning the lesson about fermentation temperatures, I was determined to avoid further potential yeast dormancy issues. So determined, in fact, that I inadvertently chose the middle of a heatwave to attempt my second brew!

However, forewarned is forearmed, and I went into this brew aware of all the potential temperature-based pitfalls. After doing some research on the potential impact to flavour (excessive fruity notes added by high esters generated by over-active yeast) and various homebrewers summer-temperature combating techniques (sit your fermenter in a bath of cool water / surround it with damp towels / blow a fan on it), I decided the best approach was to find a beer which wouldn’t suffer from additional fruity overtones.

Having long been a fan of ruby ales, mainly for their rich fruity taste, this seemed like an ideal time give one a go.

After browsing through various home brew shops online, I finally plumped for the St. Peters Ruby Red Ale kit. I’ve sunk a fair few bottles of their fine concoction in the past, so I had a good idea of how the final brew should taste.

(Although I don’t want to be a “brand slave” it helps when starting out to have a benchmark for what the final product should taste like. This certainly helps me to know whether what I’m doing is successful or not. Taste descriptions written by marketing departments are all very nice, but until you’ve had a successful brew, how do you know whether they ever tasted any good in the first place..?)

Equipment

I’m still using the basic kit from the Coopers DIY Beer Kit

1 x 16oz Five Star Star San Sanitising Solution

The aforementioned St. Peters Ruby Red Ale Kit

Generic cane sugar bought from local convenience store for priming

Brewing Notes

As before I won’t go into great detail about the entire brewing process as this is fairly generic and can be researched in far more depth and accuracy elsewhere. Here instead are notes on this specific kit / brew that will hopefully help others and me in future…

1. Steriliser

The no-rinse Star San is a dream to use compared to the alternative. Also I used the bath this time instead of the kitchen sink. This has enabled me to sterilise pretty much all bottles at the same time, speeding the bottling process up greatly.

2. Cane Sugar

With the Coopers Kit, priming tablets were included. This time round I used generic table sugar from the shop, adding the correct amount (tables are available in How To Brew) of sugar to boiling water before priming the entire fermenter for even distribution.

The first couple of bottles have not been overly carbonated, which is not a huge problem for this beer, and may be due more to a slight excess of liquid in the original fermentation making the sugar content relatively lower.

3. Mineral Water

This time round I was a lot more careful with the water I used. Living in a block of flats, the water quality coming through our taps is not great, to the point where we see a noticeable difference when using a water filter.

For Brew#1 I used tap water, but this time I used 4 x 5 litre bottles of own-brand mineral water from the supermarket. These were relatively inexpensive (less than a quid each) and also reduce the difficulty in accurately measuring out 20+ litres of liquid.

For additional boiled water, I used filtered tap water in the kettle. At no point did I use straight tap water on this brew.

4. Original Gravity

I totally forgot to take the OG before adding the yeast. This means that I now have no idea what the ABV is. It tastes relatively low strength, but it’s impossibly to know.

One to remember for next time.

5. Rehydrated Yeast

For this brew I rehydrated the yeast before pitching rather than just sprinkling on the dry yeast powder.

It’s impossible to know whether it’s due solely to this, or to the higher temperatures, or any number of others factors (yeast age…? who knows…) or combination thereof, but the fermentation certainly kicked in far quicker and far more dramatically than for Brew#1.*

Either way I think that this is a Good Thing and will probably continue to rehydrate the yeast in future.

* It’s also worth noting that the primary fermentation appeared to finish after only a few days. Despite this the brew was kept in the fermenter for two weeks, but probably could have been bottled sooner. Am too inexperienced to know at this stage…

6. Temperatures

Despite the hot weather, I was able to keep the fermenter in a cupboard in the kitchen (a room which is slightly cooler in our flat due to being on the North-facing side of the property) which kept the temperature fairly steady at around 24 C.

I messed around for a few days with placing freezer packs on top of the fermenter, then got the fear that bacteria-containing condensed water may drip down the side and into the fermenting beer through Coopers’ innovative gas release mechanism and just left it to fend for itself instead. (There was no noticeable change in brew temp while using these so I figured the risk was higher than the benefit.)

24 C is the upper bound of “safe” brewing temperatures for ales, and initial tastings of the beer indicate that brewing at this temperature does not appear to have harmed the flavour in any way, although this could be due to the naturally fruity flavour of this type of ale.

Tasting notes

After 2 weeks primary fermentation and 2 weeks conditioning in the bottle, the results are surprisingly good. (At least they are to me, after the first attempt…!)

As you’d expect from a ruby ale, the deep red colour is very evident, carbonation is light but noticeable, and the beer is slightly muddy after pouring but soon clears.

The taste is full and fruity, possibly more so than usual due to the fermentation temperature, but not unpleasantly so. The beer is light and easily drinkable, possibly a little on the watery side, but I think this may be due to me using a little too much water in the initial fermentation process. (I’ll err on the other side next time and see what happens.)

The overall effect is still that the beer is quite “young” – I intend to leave the remaining 40pts or so for another couple of weeks to see if the additional time helps the flavour develop (as well as for other reasons) – but there would be no problem in drinking the entire batch immediately if that was your aim.

Overall I’m very happy with the way this has turned out and will happily pick up one of these kits again – considering how easy the brewing process has been the results are superb.

Brew#1 – Coopers DIY Beer Kit – English Bitter

This is here more as a historical record than a blow-by-blow account of the brewing process, mainly because I’ve set this blog up nearly six months after the brew took place, however many lessons were learnt during and subsequently which I feel it’s of benefit to myself to spell out, and hopefully to others who may be in the same situation…

Equipment Used

1 x Coopers DIY Beer Kit (English Bitter Version)

1 x pot of sterilising powder (possibly Young’s?)

1 x sachet of dry yeast purchased from local homebrew shop

Educational Materials

Read the excellent How to Brew by John Palmer, as well as CAMRA’s Brew Your Own British Real Ale. Got mostly confused by the complexity of boiling, mashing, preparing yeast starters etc.

Then watched the DVD that came with the Beer Kit. Just add water. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Brewing Notes

I’m not going to cover the brewing process in a great deal of detail, this has already been done in far more depth and with a great deal more authority than I can bring to the table by many who came before me. If you need more information on this I would very highly recommend picking up a copy of How to Brew – if you doubt the usefulness of this book, you can read the entire thing free of charge online on the website, however having a paper copy to refer to while you’re making a mess is invaluable.

I will, however, make several points to re-emphasise or clarify advice from this book (and others) and which will hopefully prevent others making similar mistakes to myself…

1. Steriliser

Having had it drilled home by the two books and various online articles that cleanliness is 90% of your success when it comes to brewing, I knew I would need to pay special attention to this. (The beer kit itself is fairly light on this topic and does not include a steriliser as part of the pack.)

Not having any steriliser to hand on brew day, I nipped down to my local brew shop to pick some up. Unfortunately, the only steriliser available was a small pot of powder which required mixing in water to form a sterilising solution. Items sterilised in this solution would require rinsing afterwards.

In fairness, brew day was not a huge problem as there are not too many items to clean and most items can be sterilised in the fermenter itself minimising mess.

The bottling, however, was a disaster. Trying to sterilise and then rinse 40+ PET bottles and lids in a kitchen sink is a gigantic pain in the balls. I could only fit a dozen or so bottles in the solution at once, each set needed to be in the solution for about 10 minutes for the steriliser to work it’s magic, then each bottle needed to be rinsed before it could be filled with beer. The whole process took over an hour by the time I’d finished the kitchen was swimming.

For Brew#2 I bought no-rinse Star San – I can’t tell you how much this has simplified things!

2. Fermentation Temperatures and Timings

I currently live in a top-floor flat with old, draughty single-glazed windows. At the time of brewing, the temperature outside was around freezing point (and generally sub-zero over night). This meant that the flat was relatively cold, especially when the heating dropped to a subsistence level over night.

Even though I risked life, limb and the wrath of my wife through keeping the radiators on in the spare room to nurse my first brew through it’s initial fermentation period, the temperature was still rarely higher than 20 C, and more often wobbled around 16 C, with occasional drops as low as 12 C. The temperature was rarely in the ideal range of 18 – 24 C and certainly was not stable.

Fermentation did appear to take place, bubbles were visible and gases escaped (side-note – soft furnishings absorb these like nobody’s business – the spare room smelled of stale ale for several months after the brew was completed!) however in retrospect it was certainly slow and may never have fully finished.

As per the instructions in How To Brew, I discounted the advice in the brew kit to bottle after several days, and instead left the ale to ferment for two whole weeks before bottling.

Immediately after bottling, the bottles were placed in a cupboard in the kitchen (note – still very cold overnight) to condition.

A couple of weeks later I tried my first bottle. It was awful; bitter and unpleasant to drink. Distraught, I frantically searched books and forums to see whether it had become infected or whether this was a rectifiable situation. After some research I concluded that the bitter taste was due to acetaldehyde and simply needed more time to condition.

Guessing that temperature was partly to blame, I move all bottles to the airing cupboard, where the temperature was a little more constant, but still within reason. For the next few months, I would test bottles, a while they certainly improved, it was too little too late and they never reached a truly enjoyable point.

With the benefit of hindsight (and a bit more research) I think that the low temperatures screwed me twice: first, the primary fermentation may never have completed because the low ambient temperatures made the yeast dormant, and secondly, the same could have happened after the beer was bottled due to the chill in their original storage location.

Either way, this registered as a total fail, but brought with it a well-learned lesson to tightly control the fermentation temperatures.

3. Yeast

One piece of advice in How To Brew reads as follows:

“Dry yeast can be stored for extended periods (preferably in the refrigerator) but the packets do degrade with time. This is one of the pitfalls with brewing from the no-name yeast packets taped to the top of a can of malt extract. They are probably more than a year old and may not be very viable.”

I read this and took it to heart. On opening my brew kit, I immediately discounted using the yeast that came in the box and went to my local brew shop to buy a replacement.

If only I’d read the following line more carefully:

“It is better to buy another packet or three of a reputable brewer’s yeast that has been kept in the refrigerator at the brewshop.”

Instead I grubbed around on the shelves with my limited (ie non-existent) experience to find an alternative packet of yeast which I could use. It speaks volumes to me now that I have no idea what sort of yeast I picked up.

The other day I was having a skim through the section in John’s book on formulating your own recipes. This section includes a paragraph which begins thus:

“The place to start when defining a style is the yeast.”

This is a fairly strong clue that using the wrong type of yeast with your beer may cause all sorts of odd flavours!

Note for future brews: take care to use the correct yeast for your beer.

Summary

Lots of lessons were learnt with this first brew. Despite reading and preparing myself as much as possible, I still managed to make an absolute mess of things. Part of this was circumstantial (weather) and part was not truly understanding what I was reading (eg if someone tells you the temperature is important or the type of yeast is key, it most likely is!) but both have served as a reminder that there’s no substitute for actually doing.

As human beings, we learn far more from personal experience that from other people, no matter how clear or accurate that advice might be.

What does help, is reading something, then having the facts hammered home by raw experience. This I believe shortens the learning curve greatly.