Friday, November 11, 2011

My Story (Long)

When I started out brewing, one of my first questions to experienced homebrewers was, "How did you get started?" This post will help the reader understand how I got exposed to brewing, and a lot of the steps I took. It's kind of long, so grab a cold one, sit back, and enjoy.

The Introduction: 1993
It pretty much started in 1993 when I sampled a bottle of homebrew a friend brought to a party. It was a raspberry-flavored amber, and it tasted great! I remember thinking that it was unbelievable that anyone could create something so tasty; I was under the impression that beermaking was some coveted secret held solely by massive breweries such as Budweiser and Coors. After convincing me that he did indeed make it, I remember my exact words: "You've gotta teach me how to do this!"

A couple weeks later, we went to a homebrew supply shop across town (I never knew such places existed!) and bought the typical beginner extract kit. It consisted of 2 plastic fermenter pails with lids, a rubber stopper, an airlock, a hydrometer, a capper, some caps, and a racking cane. I think it came to $40 or so. I also purchased a pale ale extract kit which consisted of a can of hopped malt extract, corn sugar, and some dry yeast.

The first batch was very difficult for me. I remember being stumped and asking my friend questions that seem elementary to me now: Why do we have to boil a few gallons on the stove? Why do we have to mix it with cold water in the fermenter? Why can't we just dump the dry yeast in? Why are we using clorox to clean things? What's that stench?

When fermentation was done, I tasted the cloudy product and I didn't think it tasted much like beer. My only benchmarks to date (with the exception of my first sample of homebrew a month ago) were Canadian lagers and some domestic macrobrew swill. I remember being disappointed, but held faith in the potential for things to get better once bottled, carbonated, and chilled.

After purchasing some 12 oz bottles from Beers of the World, we teamed up to sanitize, fill and cap. Between the siphoning, filling, spilling and capping, it was a grueling experience. I let it sit a couple weeks and tasted it... Yuck! It was way over-carbonated, and the head accounted for twice the height of the beer once the gushing bottle was poured into a chilled glass. The color was almost orange, the flavor was kind of sweet, and it was seriously difficult to drink. Needless to say, I was bummed...but still managed to choke down the whole lot.

That batch didn't get much better, so I tried a few other recipes from Papazian's "The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing." I also found an FTP site with a postscript recipe book which was named The Cat's Meow (remember this was 1993, before the web as we know it now). I tried a bunch of recipes from there and some actually turned out pretty good, although a majority were sad excuses for beer. My hardware grew slightly with the purchase of 4 carboys, a thermometer, and a stirrer.

The Upgrades: 1997

Some time around 1996, my housemate acquired for me 3 pin-lock kegs. When I contrasted the labor involved in bottling with the idea of pouring a cold beer from a tap, I decided that kegging would be the way to go. I purchased a kegging setup which consisted of a 5lb CO2 bottle, a dual guage regulator, some pin-lock fittings, and a picnic (cobra) tap. Before I could even keg one batch, I met my wife-to-be, and brewing took a back seat. It would be years before I picked up the hobby again.

Summary: While I did manage to make some decent beers, the quality isn't what I expected, and with new duties in my marriage, it was a convenient time to put the hobby on hold for a long while.

The Vino Years: 1998
This same friend who introduced me to homebrewing also was involved in winemaking. Since I already had all the equipment necessary to pull this off, I thought I'd give it a try.

Although people gripe about the weather in upstate NY, there is a silver lining: we live near the heart of some of the best grapes in the United States: the Finger Lakes Region. I found a vineyard that sold many varieties of raw grape juice, and acquired 5 gallons. Some of it turned out good, but since the skins weren't included in the must, it lacked the tannins and body I enjoy (I'm a huge shiraz fan).

We bottled about 7 different wines over the next few years, and threw out 2! The problem with wine, compared with beer, is you don't know if you have a good batch until minimally after about 3 months, but usually a year or more! I lacked the patience and gave up on this.

My kids came along, and I had even less time to pursue these foolish attempts.

The Revelation: 1999
For some reason, I could not let go of my homebrewing mis-experience. I don't give up easily, and the desire to get it right was haunting me.

After talking with a friend at work (this was about 1999), he introduced me to the concept of all-grain brewing. He claimed that I'd have much more control over the process, and could fine-tune the wort even more. I read the Advanced section of Papazian's "The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing" and was starting to understand some of the processes that are involved in the mashing process. Since I didn't take biology in high school -- I was a physics and calculus guy -- the concepts took literally months to sink in.

Going all-grain would be a big step for me. I wrestled with all these thoughts: I'd have to buy and build some new equipment. Would I bottle or keg? If I kegged, I'd have to buy a kegerator. I want it to turn out good, so I probably shouldn't skimp on equipment, so I'd have to get it right the first time. What would I do if the beer turned out crappy? Would I give up? How could I convince my wife I know what I'm doing? Do I know what I'm doing? Am I ready to commit to it?

Just then, we decided to move. The all-grain dream would have to wait, and my hobby sat on the shelf again.

The Commitment: 2002
Being in the software development industry, I was well aware of the importance of early and thorough requirements gathering and design based upon those requirements. The costs of correcting a poor or missing requirement is costly in software, and it would be in my all-grain setup as well.

Around January 2002, I started looking through all kinds of web sites to get an understanding of how people carry out the all-grain processes. While looking online through all types of brew racks that ranged from fully automated to downright ghetto, I knew I'd have to define my scope. Too advanced and it would cost too much and likely be too complicated. Too ghetto and I might end up frustrated with the limitations. So I sat down and designed my all-grain brewing system. Here were the initial requirements:

    Two-tier steel rack.
    Natural gas burners (it would live in my basement).
    Ventilation system to remove products of combustion, moisture, odor.
    Half-kegs as brew pots.
    Immersion chiller.
    Mash tun using a cylinderical drink cooler with slotted filter in bottom.
    Dedicated kegerator.

My brother-in-law happens to be a welder by trade, and offered his services. He had a stack of 1.5" square tubular steel in his garage, which I used when drafting the plan on paper. After my plan was complete, we met and discussed a strategy for cutting and welding. With his guidance, and over a period of 2 months in his frozen garage we cut, welded, and grinded the rack. After obtaining some scrap half kegs, we cut the tops off and made keg seats above where the burners would go.

Fully assembled, it weighed around 100 lbs and was very sturdy. We transported it to my house where I sanded and painted it blue, and used heat-resistant paint on the keg cross-members where the burners would eventually go.

I found a couple turkey fryer burners online, and converted the orifices to work with natural gas. This simply involves drilling the orifice hole to 7/64" because natural gas is delivered at a lower pressure. Using black pipe and fittings from a veriety of hardware stores, I assembled a branch off my household gas supply and piped the rack. It worked great!

The mash tun was assembled using an Igloo brand cooler like this one along with a filter assembly I made out of copper pipe. The slits were made using a sawzall.

I made a ventilation system out of a sheet of plywood that fits in the walkout door of our basement. The fans were about $8 each at Target (believe it or not fans are very difficult to find in the winter up here...they're considered seasonal merchandise just like short sleeved shirts). Fan-shaped holes were made using a reciprocating saw and the fans were mounted using angle clips. When the windows are opened at the opposite end of the basement, a mild breeze flows across the space.

Finally, the chiller was made from 25 feet of copper tubing. I wrapped it around a corny keg and soldered a handle to it, which simplifies adding and removing it, and also keeps the coils spaced well. A couple brass compression fittings and some garden hose completed the chiller.

I tested the setup my running a mock session without grains. This consisted of heating the strike water in the top keg, dispensing to the mash tun, transferring to the boil pot, boiling the fake wort, chilling the boiled wort, and then transferring to a keg.

The operation went smoothly, and I was able to gather some timing numbers for heating and cooling. This was important because I was curious how long these processes took.

By the time the system was fully assembled, it was just after Christmas 2003. Yes, it took that long to have everything fall into place. It was time for my first all-grain attempt!

I ordered an Irish Red all-grain kit, complete with crushed grain, yeast, and hops. In the first week in January 2004, I took it for a ride. The system worked very well, and I kept very close records of the mashing progress/temperatures, as well as heating and cooling rates. While I don't do this any more, it was important for me to understand how it all comes together.

While it was fermenting, I readied my kegerator. This was a salvaged fridge that I was able to get into working condition. I drilled a hole in the side and snaked in the CO2 line. A sample taken toward the end of fermentation was very promising! When the beer was done fermenting, I transferred it to a sanitized keg, put it in the fridge, and applied pressure. A day later, I turned down the pressure and poured my first glass...

AMAZING! This was easily the best beer I've ever made, and could probably rate pretty well with those who drink craft beer or even macrobrew swill. I was very happy, and served it during a superbowl party we hosted at the end of January. Sure, it was a little early to serve, but people were very satisifed.

No comments: