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A look back

In “meeting” lots of nice, informative homebrewers online lately, often via twitter, I’ve found it hard to describe my homebrew experience in 120 characters. So I thought I’d look back at the couple of years I’ve been doing this and try to write up a bit of an overview so people can see where I’m coming from, what my tendencies are, etc.

Started out like many did, with a Mr Beer kit my wife got me for Christmas of 2010. I suffered through a couple test batches with poor results, but realized through the Mr Beer online forum than clearly there was a large number of folks successfully using it, as well as a ton more doing 5 gallon brews out there. After two Mr Beer attemps (one of which did give me something drinkable, while not very good) I picked up the plastic buckets and minimum gear to handle 5 gallon extract brews.

I found a shop nearby in Haverhill that sold homebrew supplies one one side, with a mini-mart (and admittedly, a great craft beer selection) on the other. Lesson 1: if the homebrew supply area is extremely dusty, find a new shop (and check for ‘best by” dates). The amber brew (and a couple more extract batches) was done on the kitchen stove, without full size boils. I didn’t have a big enough kettle, and I don’t know long the stove top would have taken to get 5 gallons boiling. So the boils were about half the batch size, and I added water to the fermenting bucket to bring it up to 5 gal. I steeped specialty grains, used dry malt extract (DME) and hops in muslin hopsacks. I think I did the amber, a pale ale, and a Stone IPA “clone” (that came out NOTHING like Stone IPA) that way, before making the next investment: a stainless pot to due full boils. The amber was drinkable, but nothing to be happy about. The Pale Ale was the brew that convinced me this could be done. Aimed for a simple Sierra Pale type beer, and got very close. That was the first beer I was happy to share with friends, and they were happy to drink it.

The pot is 8 gallons, with no ball valves or thermometers. Just a big stainless pot. If I new then, I would likely go with one that is narrower and taller, but live and learn. Found it on Overstock.com and it was a good deal so I jumped at it. My first full boil was a Bavarian Hefe. I built up a yeast starter from the traditional Hefe yeast prior to brew day. I added about half the DME early to the boil, and then the other half towards the end of the boil. Was able to add hop charges normally, without having to account for a partial boil. Found the yeast was a different beast than I was used to. It slowed and stalled, and I resorted to swirling the fermenter bucket to get the yeast back up into suspension. Ended only down to 1.018. However, it was summertime, and guess what? The ladies like a nice Hefeweizen. My wife’s friends helped that batch go fast.

So by the Fall I was researching the benefits/costs of going all grain. Realized that the old, huge rectangular cooler in the attic with the broken drain spout was perfect to convert to a mash tun. Thanks to Brewing Network podcasts and homebrewtalk.com forums, I went all grain using batch sparging, following Denny Conn’s method (and still do). Armed with Jamil Zainasheff‘s Brewing Classic Sytles, I started brewing different styles. I learned after one terrible (dumped!) Mr Beer brew, not to mess with recipes until I had more experience and had gotten my process down. Brewed JZ’s no-crystal APA, Dusseldorf Altbier, California Common, while mixing in a few of Mike “Tasty” McDole’s recipes (Janet’s Brown Ale, amber, and “Pliney light” — but with a simpler hop bill). Amid those brews, I researched in an attempt to find a recipe for a clone of Founder’s Red’s RyePA. This clone attempt resulted in what’s been my favorite recipe off all. Not really a clone, but a delicious, balanced but hoppy amber colored IPA with lots of rye malt and Amarillo hops.

Spring of 2012 I entered the rye IPA and altbier into a local comp and took two silvers (the rye ipa entered in “Specialty”). Got some good feedback and confirmation that I was doing things the right way. Friends will always compliment the beer if it’s decent, but judges blind testing can provide much more valuable feedback. The beers were both scored in the high 30s.

Since then I’ve tried a few more styles that were new to me: a Belgian Saison and an English Best Bitter. The Saison turned out more like a Belgian Blonde due to the yeast I used. My LHBS didn’t have the Belgian or French Saison yeasts in stock, so I went the the Wyeast Belgian Ardennes strain. But the really cool thing that I found when researching leading up to the saison brew was that there are a ton of very informative commercial brewers who are willing to help educate. I got input from 3 different pro brewers on my recipe and process.

The majority of my brews are hoppy, American styles, as for the most part, that’s what I prefer to drink. While many brewers prefer liquid yeasts over dry, I’ve found little different in my brews that utilize Cal Ale yeast. I’ve done several with Wyeast 1056, but didn’t find enough of a noticeable difference compared to the dry version, Safale S-05. Given the lower price of the dry yeast, the fact that it has longer shelf life, and typically comes with enough cells in one pack to handle my ales.

And the most recent big change in my brewing: I finally went to kegs. For over two years I’ve bottled. My last batch, a West Coast style IPA, with Mosaic and Chinook hops, went into the keg after about 3 weeks fermenting and dryhopping. After a week being force carbonated in the keg, I was able to pour amazingly fresh, hoppy beer into my glass. No waiting 2 weeks for bottles to carb up, having to deal with temp control for 2 cases of bottles (in New England here, so temps are all over the map). No more chilling long enough, hoping for sediment to drop out, or pouring carefully so as not to get any sediment into the glass. No leaving sediment-filled beer behind in the bottle. No time spent soaking, peeling labels, running them through the dishwasher (overnight, so they would be cooled down enough in the AM to fill). No more rinsing bottles, leaving them upside down on the kitchen counter to dry. For about $270 I got the CO2 tank, regulator, hoses, quick connects, faucet, shank, and two 5 gallon ball lock kegs. One vessel to clean and sanitize, not 48 bottles. Rack the beer one time, form carboy to keg, as opposed to carboy to bottling bucket, mixing in priming sugar solution, and then individually filling and capping 2 cases of bottles. Huge time saver, and fresher beer! Easily controlled carbonation levels, too.

So… long and rambling, that’s my two and a half years in homebrewing.

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