Maiden Voyage

This post should probably have been written a few months ago, back when I brewed my first beer, but somehow I never got round to it and now I’m sitting here just starting on my second brew day and I figure I should record the first beer I brewed before I get a second under my belt. I’ve been interested in brewing for a while now, but never had the space before. I also moved from Edinburgh to Toronto six months ago. Before the move there was no point buying a bunch of brewing gear that would just be more stuff to move over here (or more likely get rid of and buy again once here) but afterwards I had more space available. I also found (slightly to my dismay) that Ontario has a local monopoly on alcohol sales, with everything going through one of three shops: the LCBO, the Beer Store, and the Wine Rack. The Beer Store mostly deals in 24 packs of lager so for decent beer of any kind the only option is the LCBO. I don’t live that close to one however, and we don’t have a car. This just provided another good reason to try brewing my own beer (as if I needed the excuse).

Back in November I finally got round to making the trip to a local homebrew supplies store, Brew North and the owner was incredibly helpful in setting me up with everything I needed to brew 3 gallon all grain batches using the boil in a bag (BIAB) method. He even put together a recipe for an English Brown Ale for me. I soon had everything I needed to get started brewing and spent the next few nights reading through the How to Brew book that seems to come widely recommended.

The weekend after I set aside a day for brewing, got everything set up in the kitchen and managed, by the end of the day, to have a 3 gallon plastic carboy full of something that, given a few weeks in bottles, would be beer. There were a few hiccoughs along the way of course. Firstly I made a mistake with the mash out and didn’t keep it at the right temperature for long enough. The instructions were to raise the temperature over 7 minutes and hold it there at the higher temperature for 10 minutes more. Instead, when I reached the desired temperature after about 10 minutes, I stopped the mash. I then started the boil, and as I wasn’t sure how easy the stove would find it to get the wort up to boiling I put the lid on the pot. I clearly should have kept a better eye on it as it boiled over about 5 minutes into the boil. I hadn’t added any hops at this point, but it did make a bit of a mess of the cooker.

The rest of the boil and the hop additions went smoothly, but the next problem cropped up when I went to transfer the beer into the carboy for fermenting. I’d added the dried yeast to some warm water to get it started about ten minutes before I added it to the beer and when I came to add it to the beer in the carboy I realised that I hadn’t left enough space for the amount of liquid I needed to add. At this point I’d already added some of the yeast, so I had to try and siphon out the wort without taking much yeast out before I could finish adding the yeast. After all this was said and done I finally had my beer ready to ferment, and it sat in the back room for the next two weeks happily bubbling away.

Two weeks later the bubbling had stopped and I had a day set aside for bottling. I’d been saving up bottles from assorted Beau’s beers that my girlfriend and I had been drinking over the past few months (partly because we like their beer, partly because the bottles are a nicer shape than others) and so spent the first part of the day cleaning and sanitizing the lot of them. I wasn’t entirely sure how many I’d be filling, but I think I had 19 bottles ready just in case. I didn’t have a dedicated bottling bucket so I sanitized my kettle so I could use that instead and transferred the wort over from the fermenter as carefully as I could trying to introduce as litle oxygen as I could. With that done, I let it settle while I heated up some water and dissolved the priming sugar. I added this to the wort, gave it a gentle stir to distribute it more evenly and let it settle again.

With that done, I started filling the bottles and soon had five filled with beer and ready for capping. For some reason I stopped there and decided to cap the first batch for which I’m very grateful. I have a lever arm capper and it was at this point that I discovered that the collar on the Beau’s bottles, of which I had cleaned and sanitized so many, was too long for my capper! Despite trying various desperate ideas to get the caps on I soon had to admit that I wasn’t going to be able to use these bottles and had to find an alternative. I certainly didn’t have enough other bottles in the house, though fortunately I did have some I’d been saving, and so I hastily cleaned out the carboy, sanitized it again and transferred the remaining wort from the bottling bucket back over. I popped the airlock back on that and tucked it away again until I could buy more bottles. I then had five bottles worth of beer (plus the sample I took for my hydrometer reading) left that I needed to deal with.

Some thorough bottle scrubbing and sanitizing later I had a motly assortion of bottles ready to receive beer that all worked with my capper. I carefully poured the beer from the Beau’s bottles back into my bottling kettle and then siphoned that into the bottles I had waiting. These were promptly capped successfully and all went into the cupboard for their 30 day wait until they were ready for drinking. I finally had some bottled beer!

Several days later I popped down to the homebrew store and picked up two crates of bottles (enough to last me for this batch and the next) along with a bottle brush and everything I needed for my next recipe (and the subject of a different blog post). The next evening I bottled the remaining beer, adding a quarter of the original priming sugar (halved because I’d bottled a bit under half the beer and halved again because there was already sugar added a few days before).

Along with my girlfriend and several of our friends we’ve now drunk our way through all of the first bottling and one bottle of the second. The second bottling certainly came out more carbonated, but it wasn’t shooting out of the bottle (or worse, exploding) and I’m happy with both.

I’m amazed at how much you can tweak and change when brewing beer, everything from the basics, such as which malts, hops and yeast you use, right through to the water chemistry and the Ph level seems to be open for tweaking, changing and improving on. It sometimes seems like such an incredibly complex process, with so much that can go wrong, and yet people have been making beer for thousands of years and despite the numerous mistakes I made with my first batch, it’s still an enjoyable beverage.