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Your First Brew Part 3: The Bottling

Okay, it’s been two weeks. You’ve been watching the airlock on your bucket or carboy bubbling away with a certain hunger in your eye and an anticipation in your liver. You’ve been marking your calendar every day waiting for the moment when the beer is finally done and you can sample the goodness that barley hops and yeast making sweet love has brought forth.

And the day has finally arrived. The churning yeast has stopped and settled to the bottom. The airlock has stopped. Everything is quiet and still. It’s like Christmas morning… if Christmas morning involved micro-organisms and anaerobic metabolic processes instead of a fat man breaking into your house.

And now, finally, it is done…

HAAAA! Sucker!  You’re not done yet!

There’s still some crafting that needs to happen. Your beer still needs some TLC. And I don’t mean the kind that comes from putting your carboy in front of the TV and turning on a Here Comes Honey Boo Boo marathon. (By the way, if you are doing this, that is the worst form of alcohol abuse I have ever heard of and I am sending a team to remove your beer and put it into protective custody.)

For a start, you might have some additional steps depending on your beer style.

Primary vs Secondary:

A lot of what I am going to talk about now happens in ‘Secondary fermentation’.  You’re going to hear this phrase thrown around a bit and here’s what it means.  Those first few days when your yeast was having a feeding frenzy and your airlock was bubbling like a child blowing air into their soda?  That’s primary fermentation. 

After that’s done, the yeast starts to settle out and those airlock bubbles that used to happen five or six times every second slows down to one every minute or less.  We’re in secondary territory, Son, and that’s when we can do some additional things to our beer.

Dry Hopping

You: *Looking at me perplexed* Your recipe didn’t mention anything about dry hopping!

Me: Well, yes. But you may have done something different then the recipe I posted a couple weeks back. Did you?

You *Looking sheepish*

Me: Did you do an IPA?

You: Mayyybeee…

Me: Well then nine-times out of ten your recipe is going to call for a dry hop.  So what is a dry hop you might ask?

Dry hopping refers to adding hops after the boil has been completed. This adds hop flavor but little to no bitterness. It’s the secret to getting those big, bright hop flavors you most likely expect when you drink an IPA.  And, ideally, the best time to add hops is during secondary fermentation when a lot of the activity that might affect aroma or flavor has died down.

The best way to do this is to go back to your LHS (Local Home-brew Store for those that missed it a couple weeks back), get a small muslin bag, sanitize it, fill it with hops and toss it in. 

You can forgo the bag all together, but find that using it makes it easier to remove the hops and creates less gunk in the bottom of the carboy.  So dry hop with a bag or I will come to your house and laugh at you.

Getting Fruity

Fruit is and always has been a common addition to beer, especially now with Craft Beer going crazy with the flavor combination.  Again, the best time to do this is secondary so that you preserve more of that fresh fruit flavor. 

There are many different ways to add fruit to beer and I’m not going to go into them all. Instead I’m going to go through my method of adding fruit to your beer.

If your using fresh fruit, this is going to be a bit of a process.  The first thing is to slice, pit and freeze all the fruit you intend to use. The freezing is important as the ice helps break down the cell walls so that, when you remove it and let it thaw you end up with a freezer bag full of fruit mush.  

Take that mush, whip it in the blender and make yourself a puree. 

Okay, now you’ve got a sweet, soupy fruit blob. Good to go, right?

Wrong! There’s no way of knowing what’s been growing in that fruit so, unless you are experimenting with sour or wild-fermentation you’re gonna want to pasteurize that shiznit.

Plop that broth on the stove and bring that temperature up to between 150 and 170. You’re not looking for a full boil, just hot enough to kill most of the yeast and bacteria that might be hitching a ride into your carboy.  Once you cool it down, it’s good to pour into your beer.

You: But that sounds like a lot of work.

Me: Okay, Whiney McWineface. How about this:

Most LHS’s carry canned fruit puree. Which means that some nice person has already gone to the trouble of processing, pasteurizing and canning the fruit for you.  All you need to do is open the can.

Either way you decide to add fruit, however, you’re going to want to give that beer another week or so. Fruit contains a lot of sugar and yeast eat surgar and make alcohol. That’s why we love the little buggers but it does mean that if you bottle too quick you’re gonna have and explosion. And if your bottles a-splode your gonna have a bad time.

Everything Else:

Fruit and hops are two of the most common secondary additions but those are not the only possibilities. Cocoa, hot peppers, herbs, spices, ANYTHING YOUR LITTLE HEART DESIRES can be added in secondary. You can also add these things right at the end of the boil. This is a good option for sanitization but there is the possibility exists that primary fermentation will change the flavors somewhat. Secondary fermentation additions preserve flavor, but sanitation potentially becomes an issue. The only way to know what works best for you is to experiment, you little mad-scientist you.

One more word on primary/ secondary:

Some people advise using a siphon to move the beer into a new container (usually a carboy) for secondary fermentation. This is an option but one that I rarely do anymore. Proponents of a new secondary fermentor will often site improvements in clarity as a reason to move the beer to a new home.  But, for me, I’ve not seen any improvements in clarity or any other benefits to a secondary fermentor with one exception:

Lagering

If you plan on letting your beer age for a few months, it is a good idea to use a secondary fermentor. The reason is two-fold.  Number one, your yeast is dying!  Dying! You Monster! How Could You?!

And as they die their little yeast corpses begin to break down and can contribute strange flavors to your beer. So the best idea, if you plan to let your beer age, is to rack it off that yeast gunk and let it chill in a new fermentor.

So you’ve hopped, fruited, aged or whatever your beer.  Time to bottle!

Carbonation and Bottling:

Okay, so you’ve opened your fermentation bucket and peered inside. It looks kinda like beer. It smells kinda like beer. In  all likelihood, you’ve got a beer. 

*self high-five*

But before we get too excited and try to chest-bump the air there’s a couple of things we need to do.  First, a hydrometer check.

Fill your test flask with your fermented beer. The best way to do this is thusly:

You’re gonna need to get your beer into your bottling bucket anyway. So use your siphon to start that process.  And once the beer starts flowing, sneak in, slowly retrieve the other end of the siphon hose, fill the flask, replace the hose in the bottling bucket, laugh maniacally for your deft thieving of your own beer and, lastly, feel ashamed for how proud you felt for stealing your own beer.

Okay, now drop that hydrometer in and read the number.

Hydrometer reading
That’s science happening.

We can tell two things from this reading.  The first thing we know is whether or not it’s done fermenting. Most recipes should come with an estimated Final Gravity. If you’ve hit that, or at least gotten within a couple of points, your golden. 

Too high? Maybe give it a few more days and take another reading. If it consistently stays too high, then you’ve got a problem. 

Too low? Could be a contamination issue. Especially if the beer tastes sour or has other funky flavors.  Again problem.

But barring any problem signs, we can move on. The other thing we can use that number to figure out is… wait for it… The Alcohol Content!

Now, if you remember when you brewed the beer, you did a hydrometer reading. And you wrote down the number. Now you can take….

What do you mean you didn’t write down the number?

Sigh….

Listen, write everything down. If there is one thing I can stress, it’s this. Write it down.  Literally, that sentence?  Write that down. And everything else you do.  Because brewing is all about replication and someday your going to do something weird and accidentally make the best beer you ever made. And you think you will remember but you won’t. You’re gonna get drunk, and wake up in the bathtub with no pants and your face covered in Lifesaver candies. So Write. It. Down.

Anyway, for those of you who did write the original gravity down, you can now figure out your alcohol using this handy-dandy equation:

ABV = (OG – FG) x 131.25

Wherein ABV is your alcohol percentage, OG is your Original Gravity and FG is your Final Gravity.  There are calculators out there on the Internet but ptttthhhh to that. Do the math!

Okay I totally use a calculator, but still.

So now you’ve got a flask of fermented beer. It’s not a great idea to put that back in the bucket so you might as well sample it.

It’s warm and it’s flat so it’s probably missing a lot of the flavors that will come out later but it will give you an idea of what to expect. It will also tell you if something has gone terribly wrong. This happens. Make peace with this. Every home brewer ends up tossing some beer down the sink. It’s a tragedy but it happens.

But assuming nothing has gone wrong it probably tastes pretty good. Well don’t get cocky now because there’s one more step.

Bottle Conditioning:

There are a few ways to finish your beer.  Some keg and force carbonate it, which is great assuming you have a draft system at home. Of course, the fact that one has beer on draft in their home is probably a sign of some kind of drinking problem.

Full disclosure, I have three beers on tap at my house. 

MOVING ON!!

For most home brewers just starting out, bottle conditioning is probably the way to go. It’s easy, it’s reliable and it requires no additional equipment.  All you need is some sugar and some bottles. And you can even reuse empty beer bottles assuming that you’ve rinsed them out and they are not the screw-top variety. 

So that’s the method we’re going to be discussing today. First, we need sugar. Specifically, dextrose. Which is to say corn sugar. 

Totally not what it looks like

We use corn sugar because yeast basically turn that directly into alcohol and CO2 with no other flavors. And there is still yeast active in your beer.  Not a lot. Not nearly as much as we had when we started but a little. And they are HUNGRY.  

So give them a little sugar.  …. Not like that! You freak! I mean actual sugar. Like 4 ounces.  Take that white powder and toss it in about a cup of boiling water. And that other white powder? Well, do what you have to do.  I’m not judging. Just don’t mix those powders up. Nobody needs a gram of Colombian Marching Dust in their IPA.

Anyway, dissolve that sugar into the boiling water. Turn off the heat and let it cool a little. Not all the way, my rule of thumb is if you can touch the bottom of the pan and not burn yourself it’s fine. Now toss that in and stir.

Now start bottling.

For five gallons you will need roughly two cases of bottles. That goes for either 12 oz or 22 oz bottles. Take drop them in a bucket of sanitizer. The process should go like this.

Remove bottle from sanitizing solution.

Pour sanitizer from bottle.

Fill with beer (leaving about two fingers worth of space at the top)

Cap it.

Repeat.

When your done you should have two cases of bottled and capped beer.

Now what?

We wait again.

Say, another two weeks.  I know, you’ve already waited two weeks but this is how this stuff works.  It takes time.

Two weeks.

After that, chill them and pour the frothy, hoppy, malty goodness into a glass.

Congratulations. 

You made beer. 

Now drink it, you earned it.

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Why HomeBrew?

This is the best time and place for a beer lover to be alive. I mean ever.  In history.  We are experiencing the height of the American Craft Beer Revolution and with it a flood of flavorful libations; everything from long-lost historical styles to brews using experimental ingredients and techniques that are being developed as we speak. If there is a new and interesting flavor that can be extracted from some combination of grain, hops, yeast and spices, some enterprising brewer is giving it a shot.

So it begs the question, when there is so much amazing beer being produced by gifted professionals, dreamers and more then a few half-crazed lunatics, is there any point in brewing beer at home anymore?  Is it worth the time and the money when amazing beer is so readily available?

That is a good question. But it is perhaps the wrong question. A better one would be, ‘what do the dark arts of fermentation offer the intrepid adventurer. To that, I would offer a few of many ideas:

1. Brew The Beer You Want: 

Talk a walk with me through this scenario. You go to your local bottle shop and got to the coolers. After the sound of angel’s trumpets fades and you gaze on the bounty in front of you, you actually start looking for what you want to bring home. And it’s probably an amazing selection with more individual beers from more breweries than one would find even a decade ago. And yet… there is nothing that really catches your eye because among the hundreds and hundreds of labels about ninety percent of them are IPA’s. And those that aren’t just… aren’t what you are looking for. Maybe there’s nothing dark enough or light enough. Maybe your looking for a good old fashioned stout and theres none that they haven’t barrel aged or brewed with vanilla, orange and cinnimon. Maybe your in the mood for something different and there is just nothing that you’ve not seen a hundred times before. Maybe you’re thinking longingly of ESB’s, Dark Milds, Belgian Pales or some other style that has long since been forgotten by local breweries in the quest to satisfy the population’s thirst for that citrusy hop explosion. 

Maybe you don’t want another damned hazy IPA!

That’s the beauty of home brewing. You want a traditional Helles lager? It can be yours. Want to see what happens when you add three pounds of Pop Rocks to a Belgian triple? There’s nobody that can stop you. You want a big-ass imperial stout during the biggest heat wave in Boise’s history?! It is a thing you can do.  

It is even possible to brew beer that isn’t available in this area.  Want a Bell’s Two Hearted?  There’s a recipe for that. 

2. Touch Your Inner Mad Scientist: 

Did you know you can make an 15% alcohol beverage out of nothing but milk, yeast and Beno?

Did you know that pickles can be a perfectly acceptable ingredient in beer if used correctly?

How about that wild yeast collected under a huckleberry bush produces a funky, fruity farmhouse flavor to a beer?

Did you know you can brew a beer using a WHOLE CHICKEN?!  

I know these things because I have been…. let’s call it ‘lucky’ enough to know home brewers that prefer to treat the natural world as their own playground. From strange ingredients, weird brewing techniques and wild fermentation practices, there is no limit to the experimentation one can get up to in this hobby.

At some home-brew competition or another, I remember a fellow judge mumbling into his cup, “These home-brewers.  If there are two things that can be slammed together, they will.”

FYI, that chicken beer is an actual recipe in Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Home Brewing (page 111 in the fourth edition  if you don’t believe me) I have yet to meet the soul brave enough to attempt this beer but, should you feel adventurous, for the love of Sweet Saint Fermentator bring me a bottle!

3. Train For A New Career:

Maybe you’re young and looking for an industry that values indipentant thought, hard work and creativity. Maybe you’ve been running through the corporate rat maze for decades and you seek a change. Maybe you just want to strike out on your own and start a business. The world of craft beer still holds a lot of promise for those seeking it and learning the process by which water, grain, hops and yeast turn into the nectar of the gods is not a bad way to start.  Some of the most popular brands in the country started out in someone’s kitchen or garage. 

4. Become One of Us… One of Us, One of Us, One of Us…

There are probably other hobbies or occupations that attract eccentrics, dreamers, wierdos, geeks or ramblers but I doubt many of them can gather all of them in one room on a regular basis. Home-brewers are just… well… different. They are tinkerers and questioners. Amateur scientists and professional pains in the ass. You want to see respected head brewer of a well-established brewery tinkle a little in his rubber boots?  Tell him that the local home-brew club is coming by for a tour and they have Questions. (With a capital Q). Even novice brewers have just enough knowledge and drive to be truly dangerous. 

Sound like your type of people? Come to a meeting sometime. We have beer.

5. Appreciate Beer More Than You Ever Thought Possible:

Some people buy their first home-brew kit and, five years later, have a room of their house converted into a fully functioning lab. (The kids are fine living in the attic! They like it there!). Others brew a couple of batches, decide that it was kinda fun but not something they want to spend a lot of time doing.  But what both outcomes have in common is both leave with a greater appreciation for the craft. Knowing some of the hows and whys behind the art and science makes every pint of beer that much nicer.

But where to even begin? In the coming weeks we will cover the basics of brewing beer along with the ingredients and equipment you will need to start producing spectacular beer at home.