I love diving into something new. Last fall, my in-laws were in town, and they were helping Sonja with some selection of her next wine kit. While at the store, which fortunately had beer kits in stock, I browsed about while the proprietor discussed sweetness and finish with the ladies. On one of the display walls I noticed a bunch of cans, some of them carrying prices as low as $15. Curious, I asked the owner how large of a batch of beer could be made with this can. He replied that with that can, which included some dry yeast, and a packet of hops you could make about 20 liters of beer. Right then, he set the hook.
I didn't give in to the temptation immediately. I have been, as some say, a beer-snob for a few years. Ever since I did the 'Around the World in 80 beers' adventure at Bottlescrew's I have had a palette for the finer favours of beer. I went home and discussed it over with my fiancee at the time. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that I should give it a shot. A few days later, I was back at the store picking up an all in one microbrewing kit. The total outlay for that first batch was a whopping $114 plus a little bit for the poor government. The kit has everything you need, except the water, to make a batch of beer. I even watched the included DVD, and like a good instruction follower went about making my very first batch of homebrew. In a couple of days I had a bubbling bucket in the basement. Following the instructions I waited until the first wave of fermentation was completed, then I sanitized all the bottles, primed the almost-beer for its next step and bottled it. I only managed to fill 23 of the kit's 30 750ml bottles.
I had three weeks of 'bottle conditioning' to wait out, so I worked out the math. I managed to keep 17.25 liters of beer which works out to $6.66 per liter. Compare that to a generic beer ($31.49 + / 15 cans) which sells for $5.33 per liter and I figured I was doing alright considering I got all buckets, bottles and ingredients at the same time. I impatiently waited as the yeast finished its work, and when the instructions said I could enjoy my beer I cracked one open, poured it into a frosty glass, and sampled the fruits of my labour.
It tasted like shit. Not literally speaking, but it definitely slummed about with the dirtier beers in the back alley. I did drink it all, naturally, but I also was determined to make better beer. While drinking my batch of un-success I did some research on the internet, and picked up John Palmer's amazing book on homebrewing, which also exists as a free abridged online version. I realized that I was doing a great deal wrong, and set out to fix it up. Lesson number one: Humans make sugar water, yeast make beer so keep your yeast happy.
I made another couple of batches from other extract kits that I picked up from another homebrew store in Calgary. Absorbing knowledge on how to make better beer became my hobby for a while. Coming across anyone that knew anything about brewing, I would pick their brain until they were sick of talking to me. Through these conversations I learned of the Yeast Wranglers homebrewing club in Calgary. I went to my first meeting at the start of the new year, which was an amazing twist of fate. At that meeting, which had began with a presentation on mashing, they announced a 'Partner Brew' competition where pairs of rookies and seasoned veterans would be matched up and make a beer together which would then be entered into a competition against all the other pairs. I was matched with Chris, and in mid-February we got together at his place to make an American Brown Ale.
Here is where I got reeled in. I can honestly recommend to anyone that would like to make their own beer, that the number one thing you should do is watch someone else that knows that they are doing. The books are nice, and the internet is full of information if you can sift through the noise, but watching the process done from beginning to end by someone that makes good beer is invaluable. Up to this point, I was an extract brewer. I would pick up a kit of concentrated malt, yeast and some hops. Mix it all together and wait until the yeast made some booze. Chris brewed from malted grain, which means he mashes the grains with hot water to extract the sugars, and then boils the wort with various combinations of hops to add bitterness and then adds a culture of live horny yeast to the sugary concoction to make beer. Brewing from grain gives you the ultimate control over the flavour of your beer.
My first take home from the 6 hours brewing experience is that taking the step from where I was mixing extract and water to an all grain brew day was not a big one. The majority of the brewing process is waiting. Waiting for water to heat up, waiting while enzymes convert starch to sugar, waiting while wort boils and waiting while the wort cools down is where the majority of the time is spent. In between there are short bursts of activity like dumping water from one vessel to another, or putting some ingredients into boiling wort. During the waiting period, there were ample opportunities to sample Chris' other homebrews; all of which were very tasty. Chris also had one huge hand up on me at the end of the process: He didn't bottle his beer. Once the yeast was done doing its work, he would pour the entire batch into an old stainless steel keg, hook up some carbon dioxide and BANG! he had beer. None of the hours spent cleaning bottles, priming beer for secondary fermentation or waiting for a bottle conditioning. Everything about the whole experience seemed overly easy. During the drive home, I kept rolling the thought over and over in my head: I can do that.
At this point, I discovered the catch. Like all great hobbies, the equipment can get very very expensive. To make the switch to all-grain I would require some more equipment. I picked up some old kegs and stainless connectors from Craftbrewing.com here in town and ordered a grain mill and other gadgets from HopDawgs and Canada Homebrew Supplies. With the help of a propane turkey fryer, previously used to create deep fried goodness, and a large stainless pot from a restaurant supply store I set about making my first all grain batch.
Again, it tasted terrible. So bad in fact that I poured the whole thing out. The reason, I found out later, was that I mixed up my Nugget and Fuggle hops, and ended up with twice as much hop bitterness than required. Considering I like my beers pretty hoppy, I was aiming for the high end of human tolerance and considering I put in a hop that was twice as bitter I blew past the realm of tolerable right into what-the-hell-did-I-just-drink. My kit beers were comfortably in the area of 'drinkable' and were right on the cusp of being 'good'. I thought back to my first kit beer, and thought of all the progress I've made since then, and knew that it was only a matter of time that I would be making tasty beers from malted grain. With this knowledge in hand, I continued to crank out batches of beer.
Now I have made over a dozen batches of all grain beer. Some were hatched from clone recipes and some were my own originals. I've made four iterations of "Sonja's Castle" trying to make a beer that Sonja will enjoy. I started off with an internet clone recipe of Newcastle and have been tailoring it to her tastes. The last iteration was well outside of the 'alright' category, and was skipping about in 'tasty' territory. Futhermore, now that I've learned out yeast wrangling, and have been purchasing ingredients in bulk, I have been keeping my brews in and around the $1 per liter range.
Now I've come to another step in my lifecycle of a brewer, and am looking to reduce the length of my brew day. Right now a brew day will take me at least 8 hours. Most often I will spend about 10. I also want to remove a lot of the hard labour from the day; things like lifting over 20 liters of nearly boiling water in a stainless keg to waste level is not only hard to do, but a little dangerous. Towards this end, I have been researching other people brewing setups. Databases of brewing setups exist on the internet, of course, so there is a lot of reference material. If money was a little more freely available one can just purchase an amazing gas fired or electric system complete with stand. Although these options usually require the 'Money is no object' mentality. I cringe at the mere thought of the shipping charges.
I have begun accumulating parts from around Calgary, eBay and other corners of the retail internet, and am very close to beginning my build. My plan is to have a 1-tier electric heat exchange recirculated mash system in place by the end of the summer, so I do not need to burn propane outdoors to make beer during the winter. I hope that with a little automation, and a good layout, that I can cut my brew day in half. Thus, I can spend more time enjoying my beer, than making it.