The Terrible Pain and Joy of Brewing Your Own Beer

I have made beer.

That is a glorious sentence.  Before I detail our latest batch, I must take a moment to acknowledge our last one.  My friend and mentor in this brewmaking endeavor, Diego, asked for my assistance in making this batch of beer from all grains.  It was a weekday, we had limited equipment, I dropped the strainer in the bucket of wort more times than I’d care to acknowledge, yet we managed to succeed in creating an enjoyable beer to drink our first time around.  The beer was titled, Lost Spoon, and we were attempting to create it in the style of a belgian beer.  While the beer’s flavor wasn’t ultimately Belgian, we ended up with a very decent beer out of the deal and amazingly enough, we did it our first time through despite the missteps along the way.  It proves that beer is resilient enough to survive my meddling with the process.  An encouraging thought.

Our next batch was to be a Porter.  We had decided to prepare ourselves a little more adequately this time around.  I had gathered equipment of my own in order to feel more a part of the endeavor and to allow us to get at least 2 batches going at once.  I bought the following to complement the equipment already purchased by Diego: a 6.5 gallon glass carboy, a rubber carboy bung, an expensive and possibly unnecessary counter-flow wort-chiller, a sparge arm, 12 22oz. empty bottles, tubing, some bottlecaps, a bottle washer, a thermometer, and a hydrometer.

The equipment left for us to purchase was to make some sort of lautering system (i.e a water cooler with a spout and a mesh screen false bottom set a few inches above the bottom) in order to allow the grain liquid to separate from the grain and allow us to strain more water through the grains.  The ideal solution was supposed to work something like the game “Mousetrap”.  Our plan was to hook up a water cooler with a spout, fill it with hot water, and hook up a tube to the sparge arm on top of the second cooler(the sparge arm acts like a sprinkler, sprinkling hot water evenly among the grains).  Then in a perfect world, we would pour the hot mash and mash water slowly into the lauter-tun(the cooler with the false bottom), and switch on the spout in order to allow the water to begin to drain.  Immediately afterwards, we would start the hot water flowing down to the sparge arm, so that water is being drained and added at a fairly even rate, allowing us to sit back and watch the magic happen. 

It was time to put the plan in action.  Saturday morning we began our trek out to the homebrew store in Libertyville, IL.  Upon getting there we decided on a spout attachment and a mesh screen filter attachment to the spout in place of a false bottom.  Then began our long and painful search for a water cooler.  Most people will not know this pain because they won’t be searching for a water cooler in the beginning of Fall.  They will search for it in the Spring or Summer, like most normal people.  Upon getting home we found that the sparge arm I purchased was too large for the cooler we picked, causing me endless grief as my dreams of “Mousetrap” abruptly vanished.  Oh well, fuck it. It was time to sanitize.

When making beer, clean everything the beer will touch.  Don’t touch it afterwards, and if you have to, wash your hands first.  This is mostly important after the beer cools to room temperature.  We hooked up a turkey frier outside with some giant pots in which to steep our grains and boil the wort.  We also tested our lautering system and our wort chiller.  Then we positioned everything and began.  Here are the steps we followed based on a recipe from Charlie Papazian.

Unnamed Porter(Possible names: Vesuvius Porter, Lord of the Flies Porter, Large Sparge Porter, Giant Leap Porter)


Cascade 7.0% Leaf Hops 1 oz. (half for boiling, half for aroma)

Northern Brewer 8.5% Leaf Hops 1 oz. (for boiling)

Munton’s Premium Gold Yeast (6 grams)

Black Malt 475-525º L Briess Malting (USA) 1/2 lb

Crystal Malt 50-60º Simpson’s (UK) 1/2 lb.

Pale Malt (Crisp) 8 lbs

Munich 40 (Durst) 1 lb

Pesticide Free Chocolate 325-375º L Briess Malting (USA) 1/2 lb.

1 tsp gypsum

1/4 tsp Irish moss

Unnamed Porter Preparations (Final OG: 1.053):

1.       Acquire remaining supplies and build remaining equipment.

2.       Test out lauter tun system

3.       Test out hopback to wortchiller and take temperature reading

4.       Sanitize all equipment to be used: Carboy(’s), wort chiller, lauter-tun system, tubes, thermometer,etc.

5.       Set up lauter-tun

6.       In large pot, add ½ tsp gypsum to 10 quarts of water and raise temp to 145 degrees, as specified in the recipe

7.       Add the crushed malt to the water and mix well.  Temp should stabilize at 133.  Hold for 30 min.  Add heat if necessary, don’t worry about a 3-5 degree drop during this time.

8.     Add 5 quarts of boiling water to the mash.  This will raise the temp to about or just below 155.  Hold at 155 for 45 min, stirring occasionally.  Note: We accidentally added too much water and  raised it to around 160 and it fell slowly to 155 over 60 minutes time.

9.   Complete conversion by raising temp to 158 and holding for 10-20 min. Note: See previous note

10.   Raise temp to 167.  Then pour mash into lauter-tun slowly, floating the grain on the liquid to prevent a stuck runoff.  Make sure that the liquid level is always slightly above the mash level.

11.   In a pot, add ½ tsp gypsum to 3 gallons water.  Raise temp of the water to 170 and add to the lauter tun water supply.  Note: We only bought one cooler as we only had one spout to use.  Since the sparge arm was too big for the cooler anyway, we poured extra water directly into the lauter-tun.

12.   Begin draining from lauter-tun to pot below.  Begin water flow from cooler to lauter-tun.  Adjust rate as needed.  Note:  See note above.

13.   Bring wort to a boil.  Add boiling hops and boil for 50 min.

14.   Clean lauter system to use as a hopback later

15.   Attach sanitized tubes from sanitized hopback to sanitized wort chiller and from wort chiller to a sanitized 5.5 gallon carboy.

16.   Set up wort chiller to flush cold water

17.   After 50 min, add Irish Moss and boil for 8 more min

18.   Add aroma hops and boil for final 2 minutes

19.   Pour wort into lauter-tun(hopback).  Drain through chiller to fermenter.  Make sure to let wort splash to aerate it.  While pouring wort, take sample for Hydrometer and temp

20.  Enjoy confused looks from people walking by the front of your place as you manage this weird contraption.

21.   Measure OG and temp, and record.

22.   Secondary drain after 30 minutes to eliminate trub  Note: While this step was performed, we found it to be unnecessary as there was almost nothing that needed to be removed.

23.   Add extra water to fermenter as needed to reach 5 to 5 ½ gallons.  Note: Did not perform this step, total volume was possibly under 5 gallons.

24.   Pitch yeast when temp is 70-75

25.   Fit blow off tube into carboy opening and direct other end into a jar to contain the run off.  Place in a dark area.  Note: Didn’t do this part, just put on the fermentation lock as we assumed the foam would not reach the top, as we had a smaller volume than expected and there was no additional adjuncts.

 Oh the folly!  The hubris!  Anyway, that last step proved to be the biggest mistake I made during this process.  Neglecting the blow-off tube, to drain additional foam during the first few days fermentation caused a blow up of foam in the closet we were fermenting in, giving me a phone call on my way to the suburbs from my understandably angry girlfriend wondering why there is beer foam all over her closet and leaking onto one of her floor mats.  Luckily, she came to the rescue and put in a sanitized blow off tube and directed it into a bucket filled with water as well as cleaned up the beer mess in the closet.  I came to look at it a few days later to put back on the fermentation lock now that the activity has settled, and it looks like we have lost a half a gallon or so of beer via foam coming through the tube.  The upside is the beer will likely taste better now.  The downside should be obvious.  Anyway, a host of fruit flies has come to feed on the runoff beer that came through the blow off tube, and I’m going to spend the rest of the Fall getting rid of them.  But it smells delicious so far and at the end of all this hard work and post beer-making cleanup…..

I have made beer.

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