April 29, 2022 at 2:08 am #3996
So, I am pleased to note that I have recently attempted a project, and despite everything that I now know I’ve done wrong, things still seem to be going just fine…
And what is this project you might ask? BREWIN’ BEER!
(Sorry, the flash makes it look a lot cloudier or muddier than it really is!)
Brewing beer is one of those tasks that currently seems to be veiled in a cloak of jargon and a bit of mystery despite a constant growth in the number of brewing hobbyists. However, many of the perceived complications are just that – perceived. Adhering to some of those complications likely holds varying degrees of merit, but it’s probably not as necessary as one makes it out to be.
Let’s look at the source of my inspiration below:
…Technically, I’m not sure spruce beer is actual beer. There’s no grains! That said, I feel that a better understanding of terms would help me out in this case. Regardless, we know that ales are basically top-fermenting, and lagers ferment down low in the wort. In this case, we are making an ale. “Beer” certainly doesn’t require hops to make it beer (despite the efforts of certain laws), but those hops do help to flavor said beer. In the case of spruce beer, it is the “spruce essence” which helps to flavor the beverage. The grains in beer, while also helping to impart a flavor, change from starches to sugars in the mashing process. The resulting sugary wort, after boiling to sterilize everything, is “pitched” with yeast. That yeast converts the sugars to alcohol and furthermore produces the carbonation that helps beer to keep for some time if properly stored and prepared. In the case of spruce beer, there is no mash – the flavoring and the sugars are added to water for a quick, rapidly ready wort. In essence, spruce beer is field-expedient beer. From the Townsends video above, that should be fairly apparent.
I think clarifying some items in the Townsends video is in order. The first part of the video covers the creation of a pine or spruce essence, with an admonition to look out for and be wary of other evergreens. Production of a large volume of the essence is not necessary. Basically, the essence is like tea, which is well-steeped and boiled to create a concentrated solution. How much essence you choose to add to the beer is going to be a matter of preference. I probably added too much, but hey (it was my first day – insert Simpson’s reference here)! My essence was a combination of white pine and blue spruce, trees I simply walked outdoors to find and sample from.
The sugar concentrations in the wort vary from the recipe he references and a recipe he implements. The referenced recipe basically has a 16:1 water to sugar compound ratio, while the implemented recipe was a 8:1 water to sugar ratio. The varying water-sugar ratios here might have been from the historical practice of boiling down of the wort in excess (as referenced in the video), in which case much of the water would evaporate, etc. In any sense, higher sugar concentrations should result in a stronger beer with a bit more alcohol. If the yeast does not consume all of the sugar, you’ll probably get a slightly sweet beverage as well. I opted to use the 8:1 ratio, or something around that. Instead of the maple syrup, I figured I’d use honey. But then, I cheaped-out, because good honey is expensive (the new jar of local honey I bought came in at $21!). I still used some honey, and then I pitched in a variety of other sugars (brown and white, as well as some molasses). Being stingy, I used some Mrs. Buttersworth’s… whatever-the-heck-it-actually-is… syrup. This was probably my next mistake, as the non-refrigerated syrup contains a preservative yeast doesn’t necessarily care for. In any sense, that was my wort, and it seems to have been effective. The volume of my batch comes in at about a gallon, so my sugar volume comes in at about a pint…
…Mistake number three was in my choice of yeast. One does not need a fancy beer yeast in order to participate in alcohol ranching. Normal bread yeast will do just fine, and I have watched many videos of people making very respectable beer with conventional bread yeast. The key word here is conventional, NOT FAST RISE YEAST. In my sudden drive to try making booze, it seemed at the time that the latter was the one to use, so I used it. REGARDLESS, that fast-rise yeast seems to have worked. Yeast is added, or “pitched,” into the wort once it has cooled to an appropriate temperature. The referenced temperature, “blood temperature,” simply means a temperature in the ballpark of 100 degrees F. In essence, the liquid feels neither hot nor cold. My initial pitching did seem effective, though after tracking the behavior of the brew, I opted to pitch a bit more into it after two days of primary fermentation. Doing so definitely caused a bit more action and I feel it was the right thing to do. Many mistakes so far, but none catastrophic! It should be noted that there are a few rules of thumb for pitching yeast, but in my reading it often boils down to using 2 to 3 grams of dry yeast per gallon of brew.
So, how does one engage in this fermentation stuff? Many modern home brewers do enclosed fermentation, but traditionally (and in the featured video presentation) fermentation tends to be done in the open for the first stage. The yeast naturally seals itself into an environment and makes its own enclosure. The open fermentation process generally demands less equipment than an enclosed process. For me, once the yeast had been pitched into the wort, it just stayed in the cooking pot. All I had to do was add a lid to keep dust and critters out! Without more specialized tools (which I will discuss shortly), I simply tended to, and watched and waited on the wort for four days. At the end of the cycle, the behavior of the yeast had died down and I determined it was time to “rack,” or move the beer into bottles for secondary fermentation. The secondary fermentation helps the beer to stabilize and do other things, or something like that. The term “bottle conditioning” is often used in parallel with secondary fermentation, though the two things are not necessarily one-and-the-same. To my reading, bottle conditioning often relies on adding a bit of extra sugar and yeast in order to increase the amount of fermentation (and everything that goes along with it) that occurs at this stage, while secondary fermentation basically lets the beer cure, carbonate, and resolve any further natural fermentation that it would otherwise do. If I choose to further pursue the beer hobby, I’m sure I could better define these terms succinctly and accurately.
My racking process includes what is likely my fourth and final mistake in this project so far. I did not have any special tools for racking – I simply boiled some water (for sterilization of tools) and thoroughly washed bottles and other implements. Using a measuring cup with a pouring spout, I gently moved liquid into two 1.75L bottles (my approximate gallon) while trying not to stir up the lees, or dregs, on the bottom of the pot. Those lees (as well as the foamy krausen which can form on the surface of the wort during primary fermentation) can be used to make future batches of beer or to bake bread, but that was not my mission for this project. My mistake comes in the form of not minimizing the air gap at the tops of my bottles – I could have got a bit more beer in there as well as reduced the volume of oxygen. The presence of that oxygen could cause the beer to sour over time, but the time in which this batch will sit should not be long enough for any such thing to happen. As I keep noting, so far, so good!
Thus, I now wait to see if the beer I’ve concocted is any good. I have tasted the wort after stirring, and noted its progression from sugar water into something very beer-like. My plan is to let that secondary fermentation carry on until 7 May, and thus the secondary fermentation will get about two weeks to do its thing. I did intend to do a rapid taste test during bottling, but I eventually, accidentally, stirred up the lees at the bottom of the pot when planning to do this. I really didn’t feel the need to partake of that cloudy liquid in volume, but what I did taste (and it wasn’t super-cloudy, mind you) was… something? Again, I think the brew needs a bit of time, and then it will be ready. I will let you know how it goes then!
So, what about these specialized tools I mentioned? I did not have them, and yet I made something alcoholic – it was, upon previous sampling, rather hard to drink because it was so carbonated from the yeast choice! That said, it is certainly possible to make a brew with minimal specialized tools. Many multitudes of people have done this over the course of time, and I am now amongst their number. Those tools, however, will serve to take some of the guesswork, mystery, and some difficulty, out of the brewing process. If I do a future batch of brew, whatever that might be, I really need to get the following:
1. Hydrometer and graduated cylinder set. This stuff is used to evaluate the specific gravity of the brew. It can give you an idea of the alcohol content and when primary fermentation has completed. Essentially it changes the magic into a science beyond any other common tool I’ve seen for this hobby.
2. Siphoning tools. The siphon lets you get under a krausen layer and stay out of the lees layer when you rack the beer. This is quite important, as you might have gathered from my previous comments. Disturbing that lees can put a lot of things that have settled from the suspension, back into the suspension if you’re not careful. The siphon thus lets you move the liquid without the degree of agitation that a ladle or measuring cup has.
…Aside from that, I like ales and other more traditional beers (lagers are comparatively new in a historical sense). These generally do well with open fermentation, which is both cheap, effective, and available so long as one has a few modicums of care. So, aside from needing to learn how to make a mash and get sugars from grain, and perhaps a better assortment of bottles in the future, the truth is that most people have most of the tools they already need for home brewing… and that’s pretty cool. 🙂April 29, 2022 at 1:36 pm #3999zarlorParticipant
Home brewing is, indeed, fairly easy. Indeed, even using a carboy for (a little) larger batch closed fermentation is quite cheap and easy if you just want to reuse a typical office water cooler bottle (the problem there is the potential for “infection” from using plastic, which can have scratches in the side where things you don’t want in the ferment can easily stick to, but you could use extra work to try to keep that potential to a minimum) but if it becomes a hobby you like a glass carboy really isn’t much of an investment and a rubber cork and some plastic tubing for it is super cheap.
The potential for “infection” is already fairly low with an open ferment, but it’s certainly higher than with a closed one and depending on how long you will be fermenting something there may be a somewhat increased risk. It’s still not high but it may make the difference between something very lovely to drink and something you simply have to throw out for being so nasty! So if you do it often enough I’d definitely recommend being thorough in your cleaning and going with a closed ferment. That being said you could certainly do an open ferment just to get the local yeast flying around in the air and brew something that way! You certainly have the risk of picking up enough bacteria to be a problem, but if you don’t mind having the potential of throwing out batches you can go even cheaper that way.
Also I would note if you are using honey you’re not making a beer at all, you’re making a style of mead, a style of wine! I’ve done plenty of those (mostly cysers, which is using apple juice with honey, also made a LOT back in the Middle Ages). Definitely be sure not to use any kind of sweetener that may have a preservative in it, though, as that will definitely cause some issues with letting your yeast get a nice foothold.
Otherwise yeast styles can impart flavors and a bread yeast (preferable not fast rising, as you noted) would give a more “bready” flavor to whatever you brew. Most beer or wine yeasts are more specialized and impart specific flavors, or “cleaner” flavors, or are specialized for, say, higher alcohol tolerance (and thus higher alcohol potential in the ferment). In all brewing really is pretty easy stuff and there are many great books out there on it. Most of the confusing stuff really just deals with more in-depth styles and otherwise preventing the potential for infection (as in keeping the bacteria out, most of the time to maintain flavor consistency, but in a few rarer cases to prevent the types that might cause a potential for sickness… so worth taking the time for that, IMHO).April 29, 2022 at 3:47 pm #4000Hans HellingerModerator
Really interesting stuff!
I think they only started adding hops to beer around the 11th Century. There is more than a bit of luck involved in early experiments eh?
Which brings to mind, you may have missed the most important step:April 29, 2022 at 7:16 pm #4001
The fifth mistake was forgetting the hexagram!April 30, 2022 at 6:33 pm #4002Hans HellingerModerator
ExactlyJune 11, 2022 at 3:52 am #4779
I have not followed up on this (over here) as I intended – hopefully I’ll wrap up the last loose ends on the starting project in a few days…
…In the meanwhile, I thought the following videos were very interesting as far as simple home brewing goes. If you’re not familiar with Brian and Derica, they have a really nice channel for home brewing on YouTube. It also touches on a subject matter covered over on Discord – gruit:
So, while my brewing process was far more austere (preparing the wort in the same pot used for primary fermentation), they present a slightly more sophisticated approach in which a few more containers are used (also closed fermentation). All the key steps for making what is commonly thought of as beer at some level is also included, including the mashing process. Very cool videos, and I thing if you’re interested in this stuff, would be very much worth your time.
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