For most it brings to mind a strong, bitter, barely drinkable beverage. I remember my dad doing some homebrew back in the 80’s and the barrel sitting on the sideboard like a dumpy sentinel on the landing outside our sitting room. It may have been because I was young and I hadn’t tried beer yet but I have recollections of sneaking a glass of this while my parents were out and being thoroughly disgusted.
Fast forward a number of years and I wanted to have a go myself. I started with ginger beer, because why not? I got all the ingredients together, boiled it all up on the stove, let it cool, dumped in the bakers yeast and let it do it’s thing. Now the ginger beer I had drunk up to this point was the carbonated soft drink from a can, no alcohol, sweet tasting and quite refreshing.
What I got from my efforts was a potent high alcohol thin tasting liquid without much of the ginger burn I was expecting. And it was flat. So I thought I know what will fix this, add sugar and fizz in the sodastream. Disaster followed. Gouts of sticky liquid shooting like Old Faithful out of the bottle when I took it off the sodastream. The whole batch at that point got tipped down the sink.
I wasn’t going to be put off though, off to the library I trotted (The internet wasn’t as helpful back then) and got a book on homebrewing. In it was a recipe for ginger beer. I knew where I had gone wrong, left it to ferment for too long, no bottle conditioning to generate fizz, and bakers yeast was a no no. I doubled the amount of root ginger, added cayenne pepper, used proper beer yeast and only fermented it for 4 days. This way was sure to give me a slightly alcoholic drink, but still have the sweetness, and enough yeast to eat the priming sugar. This one turned out not bad, so I bottled it and left it in my garage ready to drink.
Did I mention I bottled it in glass bottles and crown capped them?What could possibly go wrong?
Well I had some friends round for our regular Dungeons and Dragons game, and I got out a bottle to drink. Popped the cap and the drink fountained out and onto the ceiling, walls, floor and me. A few days later I was watching TV and heard a muffled thud from somewhere in the house. It sounded like someone had thrown a stone against our garage door. Going to investigate I opened the internal door to our garage and was immediately aware of the smell.
The smell of fermented beverage.
Looking around I noticed that on the shelf with the other bottles was the remains of a bottle. The rest of it was embedded in the solid breezeblock wall and in the garage door. I had made ginger beer time bombs! Gingerly (see what I did there) I removed the remaining bottles and opened them all and once again tipped them all away.
I gave up on ginger beer at that point.
But not homebrewing. Next on my hit list was real ale. but that was to come half a decade later.
I visited my local homebrew shop, which sadly is no longer trading, and bought a kit. In it was a packet of yeast and two large tins. Following the instructions I emptied the contents of the tins into a 5 gallon bucket, added a gallon of boiling water, stirred and topped up with cold water to 5 gallons. Added the yeast and once again let nature take its course. A week later the fermenting had died down and I was ready to bottle 40 pints of beer. I had no idea what it was going to taste like, but it smelled great! Primed the bottles, left them in my study to condition then out into the garage. Four weeks later I cracked open a bottle and enjoyed a lovely pint. But it wasn’t like those I would have purchased in the pub.
Several more kits later I was chatting to the owner of the homebrew shop and he said “Have you ever thought of all grain brewing? You get a better beer”. So I jumped in at the deep end. Bought all the equipment I needed and massively underestimated the amount of time I needed to brew a batch.
I got home from work and thought, yes time to brew. This was at 6pm. Well all grain brewing is a long process, one that I will never start at 6pm ever again. The steps for all grain are as follows –
- Sterilise everything
- Heat water to strike temperature for the mash
- Weigh out grains
- Transfer hot water to the mash tun
- Transfer grains to mash tun, making sure all grains are soaked and there are no dry clumps
- Hold mash temperature at 67C for 90 minutes
- Drain mash tun
- Sparge mash to rinse out all the sugars
- Boil wort for 90 minutes (it takes a long time for 5 gallons of liquid to come to the boil) adding hops at required time during this period
- 15 mins before end of the boil immerse wort chiller (a coil of copper tubing attached to cold water supply), add any aroma hops, add Irish Moss (not a moss, but seaweed)
- Once boil finishes, allow to sit for 10 minutes
- Run cold water through chiller to cool the wort to 20C
- Drain wort into fermenter allowing as much air as possible to get into the wort.
- Take gravity reading before pitching yeast
- Pitch yeast
- Clean up
It is amazing how much mess this generates and I learnt very quickly not to leave this until the end. The end on this particular day being 1am.
The next day (or later that morning) the beer had started fermenting quite vigorously to the point where I thought it was going to escape into the kitchen and scare the dog. This died down to a reasonable foamy head and stayed that way for about a week.
Once I had taken another gravity reading to make sure the ferment was over I then primed the keg with household sugar and carefully siphoned the beer into that, making sure not to introduce any air or disturb the beer too much. Once in the keg left for 4 weeks to mature.
What I ended up with was a very nice easy drinking beer. It had a nice head and a reasonable amount of fizz.
Of course this then led to lets see if I can make a better beer, and I have made many more batches since that first attempt and each one seems to get better and better.
I’ve just finished a new batch for Christmas, a dark porter style beer which I have christened Dark Tower, and it’s fairly strong at 6.6%.
I took a bottle of this round for one of my friends to try, and his comment made my day –
“This beer is really nice, I would buy this in a pub”
As far as I’m concerned, mission accomplished.
I’ve still given up on the ginger beer though.