Monday, March 1, 2010

Keep it Short and Stout

Note from the Editor: Due to schedule conflicts this spring, Will and I are switching days. This means you can get your weekly dose of beer and cocktail anecdotes on Monday, and your food stories and recipes on Wednesday. We hope this doesn't mess up your chi too badly.



As I was brewing my first beer, I knew that the next batch would be a stout. Heather, when giving me my beer brewing kit as a gift, was nice enough to include the ingredients for an IPA because she knew I really enjoyed that particular style. I wanted to return the favor and try my hand at a style that she enjoys.

Heather is not the biggest beer drinker in the world. That having been said, she certainly prefers some more than others. A general rule of thumb is--the darker, the better. She likes deep, flavorful and aromatic more than light, clean and ice cold. Guinness is one of her favorites, partly because of the taste and partly because she likes the smoothness of the nitrogen bubbles. They give a beer a distinct smoothness. Though I don't have the means to incorporate nitrogen into a beer, I can certainly look up a good recipe for a stout. I perused the internet for recipes, but wound up back at the website where I got my first one--Keystone Homebrew. I put together a shopping list and set out.

Heather was taking a soup class at the Brooklyn Kitchen two weeks ago and apparently on the day that a person takes a class, they get ten percent off of anything they buy. I'm in. We go to the store and check out the beer ingredients. On the table is a handful of xeroxed beer recipes. One of them included a sweet stout in which lactose is included. I learned during yeast class that a brewer puts lactose in his beer to make it sweet because it is too complex a sugar for the yeast to break down. Maybe one day I'll try it but the idea of a sweet beer is weird to me.

I was able to find my malt extract and comparable grains easily, but they didn't have the exact hops and yeast I was looking for. I spoke with a gentleman there by the name of Harry and he hooked me up with a different brand of yeast called White Labs Irish Ale Yeast. It comes in a glass vial rather than an expandable packet like Wyeast. I felt good about the vial. I'm sure that they are both fine methods for storing yeast but for some reason the packet seems gimmicky. The vial seems more scientific.

As for the hops, the recipe called for phoenix hops. I'm not an old hand at this sort of thing; I don't know the difference between one type of hops and another. Since they don't have phoenix, I ask what would be a good alternative. Harry whips out his iPhone and pulls up an app called "Get Hoppy." I guess what they say is true, there is an app for that. It gives the statistics for popular types of hops like flavor, acidity and substitutions. Unfortunately, phoenix is not listed in the app, so he runs to the internet and looks it up. It turns out it was bred as a replacement for challenger hops which they also didn't carry, so Harry set me up with U.S. perle hops. We'll see how it works out.

I thanked Harry and got a couple of other supplies--bottle caps, hydrometer tube, grolsch tops--checked out with my ten percent discount and headed over to Barcade to play some video games. When I got home I immediately bought the app for my iPod touch and played with it. I found out it also gives information on yeast. Ninety-nine cents is kind of a bargain.

A couple days before brew day, I decided I wanted to make a yeast starter. It gives the yeast a head start by letting the cells reproduce and shore up their numbers before the main event. I dissolved half a cup of malt extract into two cups of boiling water to make sort of a malt sugar syrup, cooled it, put it in a glass bottle (in this case a half gallon beer growler) and pitched the yeast right in. I wasn't around to see the bubbling (I do have a job,) but there was substantially more yeast settled at the bottom than I started with.

Brew day went a lot smoother this time around. The malt extract was a liquid this time around so I didn't have to wait as long for it to dissolve. There was a more substantial hot and cold break this time--which means that more of the unnecessary proteins solidified during the boiling and cooling of the wort and therefore won't end up in the finished product. And with my new hydrometer tube, I was able to measure and record the gravity of my beer. I'm curious why my kit came with a hydrometer and not a decent tube to put it in.

I also applied a thermometer to the outside of the fermenter so I can better regulate temperature. During the first couple days, when it was bubbling vigorously, I put it in the bathroom and opened the window all the way. All the activity gets the wort pretty warm. It's in my office right now so I can open the window if it's too warm and close them when it gets cool.

I'm excited to see how this one turns out. I'm a little older, a little wiser. I've got more equipment, certainly. When I started this endeavor I thought the next step would be lagering, but now I'm very curious about all-grain brewing as opposed to using malt extract. I'm told it gives a better character to a beer and offers more flexibility. But perhaps I'm getting to far ahead of myself for now. These are topics for future blogs.

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