I made Beer… and it was easy.

My first batch of home brewed beer is now finished and aging (conditioning) in bottles in the fridge.  It was fairly easy, but it was not fast.  I started on May 5th when I created the wort (young beer) and pitched the yeast.  Two weeks of primary fermentation in the barrel and then on May 20th it was ready to bottle.  Done right? Well, not quite.  At this point I had to add more sugar for a secondary fermentation to create the carbonation we all know and love.  The carbonation serves multiple purposes.  First it gives us the fizzy crisp mouth feel we are used to in beer, but more importantly Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in the bottle as well as pressure inside prevents oxygen from getting inside the bottle and ruining the beer.  Oxidation and sunlight are what cause a beer to go “skunky”.  That’s why good beer (not Corona or Miller High Life) comes in brown or green glass bottles, or aluminum cans.

Here’s how it went down.  First the easy part.  The Mr Beer kit is self contained and really easy to use.  The beer ingredient can is what’s know as “Hopped Malt Extract”.  This is essentially wort that’s been boiled and then concentrated into a syrup.  It includes all of the malt sugars needed for fermentation and flavor as well as hop extracts for bittering, flavor and preservation.

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You can’t really see anything but Lisa took a picture of me pouring the malt extract from the can into a pot of boiling water to dissolve it into the wort.  Behind me you can see the Mr Beer fermentation take (designed to look like a barrel) and a large pitcher full of water to fill the keg with.  After I poured the hot wort in the keg (half full already with cold water to cool the wort) I filled it the rest of the way with water, placed it in a safe place and pitched the yeast.  The yeast in the kit is a dry yeast you simply sprinkle on top.  I was unable to take an initial gravity reading with my hydrometer, which at first I thought was not a big deal, but later realized it was indeed a big deal.  More on that later.

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It’s hard to see, even with the flashlight but this is what the keg looked like after about three days.  This thick foam is known as “krausen”, which if you ask me sounds like a sea creature, and the first 2-4 days are when the yeast are most active and this period is known as “high krausen”.  After that the yeast die down and the foam goes away, but they aren’t done.  After the easiest to ferment sugars are gone, the yeast keep working for another 2-3 weeks depending on the beer style and alcohol level desired, they just slow down after their initial binge.  The Mr Beer kit recommends fermentation for 2 weeks.

About halfway through the fermentation I began to notice a strong smell of apples in the room where my brewing kit was.  I didn’t have a clue what this could signify so I googled it.  Now, searching the internet for brewing problems is like looking at WebMD when you have a cold.  It’s going to tell you a whole bunch of stuff that is wrong with you, like having 12 different kinds of cancer.  Turns out the apple smell is caused by acetaldahyde.  On the one hand, this is a normal byproduct of yeast fermentation, so that’s not so bad.  On the other hand if it doesn’t go away, it can be a telltale sign of all kinds of things that went wrong including dead yeast, poor temperature control etc.  So what I’m reading is basically “Your yeast is dead, and your beer is ruined”.  *sigh* Not a great start to my homebrewing career.  So I start a post-mortem to find out what went wrong and I turn to the only test I have at my disposal.  I check the specific gravity with my hydrometer now that I had acquired a “hydrometer jar”, essentially a tall glass tube tall enough to accommodate the hydrometer.  I didn’t have this the day I made the wort which is why I wasn’t able to get an initial gravity reading.  The gravity reading I get is 1.012 (water is 1.000).  This is low.. very low.  This is bad.. very bad.  Or is it?  I pull out my Brewmaster’s Bible and flip to the potential alcohol tables.  My specific gravity relates to a ABV of about 1.7%.  This is way too low and something has gone horribly wrong.  I mull this over in my head for a little while and then I read how the alcohol levels are calculated.  You take the ABV of the initial gravity and subtract it from the ABV of the final gravity and this is the approximate alcohol content of your beer.  Having not thought about relative densities of alcohol and water I have to read through this a couple times before it clicks.  Alcohol is less dense than water, therefore the gravity of the wort (sugar solution) will be HIGHER than the gravity of the final beer.  The gravity starts high and then drops.  EUREKA! I used an online tool to estimate the starting gravity of my wort which it tells me is about 1.030.  Subtracting the data from the table gives me an ABV of 3.2%.  This is lower than the 3.7% that Mr Beer lists on the can, but at this point my beer is not done yet.  I’ve still got about 5 days left to go.  Maybe my beer is not dead after all!

I was thinking about making some changes to my beer, letting it ferment longer, adding more yeast, or just throwing it out when Lisa reminded me of a good point.  For good or for ill I had stated I was going to make the first batch exactly by the Mr Beer recipe and let the chips fall where they may.  If it’s good so be it, if it got messed up along the way, so be it.  We can assess it at the end if something goes wrong.

On May 20th my beer was ready to bottle.  My kit came with 11 750ml plastic bottles.  This is roughly equivalent to 22 12 ounce bottles.  So for 14-17$ depending on the style, my kit makes nearly a 24-pack of beer.  So it’s not dirt cheap, in fact you can get some beers for cheaper than that, but it’s going to be low alcohol, flavorless beer like Michelob Light.  Supposedly the homebrew should be much better than that.

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Getting ready to start bottling.  The pitcher contains a sanitizing solution to clean the bottles with.

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Bottled beer, but it’s not ready yet.  Now it takes another 2 weeks for carbonation, and some websites even suggest another 2-4 weeks of “conditioning” after that for the flavors to mellow.

So we wait.. and we wait.. then comes to moment of truth.

May 30th.  Two of my bottles (the last two filled) got a little extra yeast in the bottles.  So they ended up getting fully carbonated first and I stuck them in the fridge for a couple days.  One day when Lisa was over we cracked one open and we tried it.

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Well, it looks like beer, it smells like beer, what does it taste like?

Turns out, it tastes pretty good.  It has a very light, crisp taste and a dry finish.  The Mr Beer American Light Lager is exactly what it sounds like, it’s their version of the style that includes Bud Light, Miller Light, Coors Light etc.  Light flavor, light body, low alcohol.  Lisa really liked it.  I think I was trying too hard to describe it or compare it to something to appreciate it fully, but I have 10 more bottles of it.  Some of which will be shared around, especially to Lisa’s family who has been waiting since Christmas!

So, I did it! I successfully made beer! After we start making a dent in this batch and getting some empty bottles back I’ll start the second batch.  Lisa is requesting a stout.  We’ll see. 🙂

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My Beer Journey

Runners love beer.  It’s refreshing and cold and a lot of races hand it out for free. What’s not to like?

I had my first beer at a Civil War re-enactment when I was… well let’s just say I was underage.  That first beer was a Coors Light.  It was essentially fizzy water, when it was ice cold it was pretty much flavorless.  We all start here right? Something light (and usually cheap) like Coors, Beast, PBR etc.  Beer for a lot of people is an acquired taste like many things, coffee, wine, etc.  Start light and work your way up.  A couple years later (again at a re-enactment) I was introduced to a lovely Canadian lager LaBatt Blue which put me on my butt, literally, with a much stronger taste and much higher alcohol content.  I liked it though, for a long time in college this was my beer of choice.

Fast forward through several years of whatever was on sale, on special on draft, or whatever was in the keg and I end up in Greensboro NC.  Here I am introduced to a locally made red ale known as Red Oak.  I fell in love with this beer, and to this day it is one of my favorites, although sadly I can’t get it anymore.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was my first taste of local craft brewing.  I went through a period, like many people I’m sure, thinking that some of the “special” brands like Shock Top and Blue Moon were “micro-brews”.. they aren’t.  They are made in the same factory as Budweiser. Microbrews are made in a place where you can walk in and see the fermenting tanks.  Red Oak was made at the Greensboro Ale House and it was only available on draft in a few places around town.  No cans.  No bottles.  They have since opened a new brewery and a cannery and you can get the beer at grocery stores in bottles.  I never got around to trying it before I moved away so I don’t know if it was as good.

A couple years later I end up in Winston Salem and get introduced to several more local beers.  It’s here I discover my first brewpub, Foothills Brewing.  They made their own beer on site! They had several year round brews including three IPAs, a Pilsner, a Porter and an American Pale Ale, plus all kinds of crazy seasonal and one off beers.   It was at this point I was starting to experiment and discover that I liked certain styles of beer, not just certain brands.  I don’t like overly hopped beers.  IPA (India Pale Ale) is usually out, and even some normal Pale Ales are too hoppy.  I like wheat beers a lot (both Belgian Style like Blue Moon, and German style Hefewiezens which are very similar), I like my Red Ales and I like brown ales like Newcastle, Nut Brown Ale etc.  I’m ok with Porters and Stouts but they aren’t my favorite.

Speaking of moving, then I moved to Beervana.  In case you didn’t know Portland, Oregon and most of the whole state of Oregon to be honest is the beer brewing capitol of the planet.  There’s several reasons for this.  First is access to fresh clean water.  A lot of the municipal water around here from from lakes and rivers that are fed by snowmelt.  Very pure and clean and they don’t put any chemicals in it, at all.  The tap water here is awesome.  Also, all of the beer ingredients grow here and grow well.  Hops flourish in this area and in fact a lot of the best hops are from this area.  Cascade, Mt Hood, Williamette etc.  The area south of Portland grows enough hops it’s probably second only to maybe Germany.

EVERYONE here makes beer.  And I mean everyone.  There are brewpubs and microbrews everywhere.  Why anyone would drink “name brand” beer (Bud, Coors, Miller etc) in this town is beyond me.  There’s a couple of fairly big local breweries around here that distribute nationwide, Rogue and Full Sail to name two that I could get back on the East Coast.  McMenamins makes their own beer (and wine and spirits) and not only is that all they carry at their locations, you can only get their beer at their locations.  Laurelwood is a local brewpub with two restaurant locations and their beer is also available at grocery stores.  There’s too many to name but there are so many, I’ve rarely had the same beer twice since I’ve been here.  Every time I go to the store I want to try something new.

Now, since hops grow so well here, Northwest beers tend to be VERY hoppy.  The NWPA (Northwest Pale Ale) tends to be hoppier than most IPAs elsewhere, and the IPAs here will blow the top of your head off.  This proves to be troublesome for me, since I don’t like overhopped beers, but there is still plenty here I can drink.  Widmer makes a great Hefeweisen.  Rogue makes an amazing Hazelnut Brown Ale that I just tried the other day. Laurelwood makes a good Red Ale.  I have plenty of choices.

But now I have one other choice.. My beer journey has now come full circle.  Very soon, within the next couple weeks, I’ll be making my own beer.  Lisa’s sister got us a homebrew kit for Christmas last year and the only reason I haven’t started yet is it’s been too cold for the fermentation to take place, but it’s finally getting warm enough.  Now if I can’t find something I like I can just make it.  I can take something similar to something I like and tweak it to be even better.  I can experiment with different flavors and combos of ingredients and just make stuff up as I go along.  It’s a small kit, only 2 gallons, so if I make something that’s terrible and undrinkable it’s not a huge waste.

Stay tuned as I’m about to seriously get my food science geek on.  There will be updates!

  • About Me

    I am a recent graduate in Food Science (NC State, 2009) and I work for a major food manufacturing company. I love food, but I can no longer eat anything that crosses my path. About 24 months ago I begin a serious struggle to get my obesity under control and reduce my chances of developing Type II diabetes. Since September of '09 I have lost 50 pounds and I still have a long ways to go. I've started eating better and exercising more, including taking up running.