No, it’s not a witch’s brew….although there ARE those who would insist that if I am involved in the process it IS a witch’s brew!!! It’s actually a pumpkin beer.
Now, I must confess right off the bat that I’m not much of a beer person. I like a cold one every now and then – especially a Sam Adams Cherry Wheat on a hot summer day after cutting the grass – but I am by no means a microbrew, craft beer or even a mainstream beer aficionado. However, I always jump at the chance to learn something new and I love kitchen (or in this case part kitchen, mostly garage) experiments!
So when my handsome husband, Jeff, and his friend Craig invited me to participate in the process of their latest beer creation, I grabbed my camera and went along for the ride! In this experiment, Craig is the beer Batman and Jeff is Robin. So what does that make me? Perhaps Batgirl-twice-removed!?! A sidekick, but not the one everyone knows and certainly not one with Batman’s powers.
Anyway, enough of the comic metaphors…..let’s get to it.
This all started when Jeff told me Craig had asked him about what spices to use for a pumpkin beer. Of course, asked for my two cents, I put in about $1.99 (i.e., more than anyone wanted). I went on a rant (I know you find this difficult to believe) about how I thought pumpkin beers should taste like something other than pumpkin pie and how everyone uses cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, etc. and how Craig and Jeff should do something different.
My mind went to star anise, fennel, pink peppercorns……ultimately to Chinese Five Spice. And someone’s mind – I think Jeff’s – went to cooking the pumpkin on the Big Green Egg (BGE) to impart a bit of smokiness. So began the experiment….
On Friday, September 25th, Craig came to our house for dinner, BGE pumpkin cooking and spice tasting. We had Jeff’s beef stew for dinner, decided on a spice combination, rubbed the spices on the raw pumpkin and put it on the BGE to roast. While the pumpkin was roasting, Jeff and Craig hung out on the back porch sipping beers and swapping stories. I cleaned up the kitchen from dinner, ran out to Bombay Bazaar for more spices (which we would use the next day during the brewing process) and made up some additional Chinese Five Spice powder (or in our case really 6 spice powder because I like to add a little ginger to mine).
The next day we met at Craig’s house to begin the brewing process and my small-batch beer education. Craig did his best to brew with Jeff’s and my assistance (sometimes help from someone else – especially someone who knows nothing about what you’re doing AND asks about 6.2 million questions – isn’t really help at all, but Craig was incredibly gracious), explaining all the steps in the process.
What follows is by no means a complete narrative about brewing. It is a few of the snippets I managed to record while Craig talked and brewed – so if anything is missing (and I KNOW it is) it’s entirely my fault and not Craig’s lack of knowledge!
Step 1 – MASHING
We began by heating the strike water to 167 degrees F and pouring it into the mash tun (the vessel in which the grains are soaked). We added the grains (a process called ‘doughing in’) and then they soaked for approximately 90 minutes to extract the sugars. The temperature of the water is important – too low a temperature extracts more fermentable sugar resulting in a higher alcohol content / too high a temperature extracts less fermentable sugar resulting in a beer with a lower alcohol content with a sweeter taste. Just for reference, we started with approximately 14 1/2 pounds of grains and about 4 1/2 gallons of water.
During the 90 minutes Craig told me a lot about the process and showed me the equipment we would be using, which he and Jeff cleaned in preparation for the upcoming steps. There was also much talk about beer, rock music and other guy things I didn’t really follow but that seemed to amuse Craig and Jeff very much!
The Rules of Brewing According to Craig
“Rule number one: Sanitation is key
Rule number two: If you’re brewing beer you should be drinking beer
Rule number three: Keep detailed notes on each batch”
Some of the equipment and terminology:
- Throughout the entire brewing process, we took gravity readings – which help you determine the amount of sugar in the brew, which affects the alcohol content of the finished product. To take the readings we used a portable refractometer.
- Car Boys – to me this sounds like the male version of diner waitresses who wore roller skates and served you car-side….but not so. Car boys are fancy glass jugs in which beer is fermented.
- The sugar liquid that is extracted from the grains during mashing (step 1) is known as WORT.
Step 2 – VORLAUFING & SPARGING
This process is difficult to explain if you’ve never seen it, but once you have it makes sense. The liquid is repeatedly siphoned out of the mash tun and then SSSSSLLLLLOOOOOWWWWWLLLLLYYYYY poured (or sprinkled) back over the grains until the liquid finally runs clear. The process can take a half an hour or more to get right and it’s one of those “you know it when you see it” kind of things. To simplify – perhaps overly so – the point is to compact the grains in the mash tun so that they create a natural filter through which the liquid is repeatedly passed until it runs clear (no more cloudiness or grains in the siphoned liquid), ultimately extracting the fermentable sugars. If I understood Craig correctly, VORLAUFING is the siphoning and sprinkling, SPARGING is the entire process of filtering the wort.
Craig’s Musings on Beer-Making
“Some brewers say, “We don’t make beer. We make sugar-water and yeast makes beer.” I say, “We’re making beer.””
Step 3 – BOILING
According to Craig, most beers are boiled between 60 and 90 minutes. We boiled ours for 70 minutes – why? Because Craig said so (BCSS). Also BCSS a few minutes into the boiling we added our roasted, spiced pumpkin and some hops.
Step 4 – WHIRLPOOLING
After the wort boiled for 70 minutes, we then used a long spoon to create a whirlpool. When the wort was moving, we added the spices (at “flame out”) and let it sit for approximately 20 minutes to allow the spices to infuse into the mixture. According to Craig, this will give the beer not only a good flavor, but a good aroma as well.
Step 5 – TRANSFERRING TO FERMENTER
Just reading the name of this step makes it sound a bit boring, however it was anything but. We got to see the THERMINATOR in action – not it’s not an Arnold Schwarzenegger thing. The therminator is a small piece of equipment through which the wort is passed on its way into the fermenter- the purpose of passing the liquid through the therminator is to quickly bring the temperature of the wort down to 65 degrees F.
Step 6 – AERATING
This step sounds a lot more impressive than it is. Boiling the wort forces most of the oxygen out of the solution.Aeration gets introduces oxygen – which is needed for the yeast to properly do its job – back into the wort. I thought there would be a fancy piece of equipment to perform this part of the process, but it was good old-fashioned muscle – to quote my friend Scott Woolman’s engineer neighbor, “what we need here is brute force.” Craig and Jeff simply took turns shaking the fermenter. Although it was unimpressive in the scheme of the brewing process, it did look like a good workout!
Step 7 – ADDING YEAST
After the wort was aerated, Craig added English ale yeast and we moved the operation from the garage to the basement, where there were previous batches of beer fermenting.
Step 8 – PUTTING ON THE AIR LOCK
The airlock allows carbon dioxide to escape during fermentation and it keeps oxygen, bacteria and wild yeast from getting into the fermenter.
Step 9 – (MY LEAST FAVORITE) WAITING
So we get through all the steps of the process. The fermenter is transported to the basement. The airlock is put in place. And then Craig says, “Now we wait.” What? Wait. Wait? I KNEW there would be waiting involved, but I wasn’t ready for the process to be over so abruptly. But there is not other choice except to wait 6 weeks to see if our experiment was a success.
So I am waiting…..I wish I could say I am patiently waiting, but that would be a lie. Sometimes I forget all about our pumpkin beer and then, like a bolt of lightning, a thought of the beer hits me and I get antsy all over again. I need a conclusion for this post……as the psychologists and psychiatrists and therapists will tell you, I need closure. Stay tuned……..