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What We Do for the Joy of Homebrewing

My homebrew system in its old location

My homebrew system in its old location

I normally don’t write much about my homebrewing. I have been a proud homebrewer for almost 23 years, but I want this to be a broadly accessible site of interest to many types of beer appreciators. As much as I love homebrewing I am well aware a small percentage of people ever do it. That is why I don’t bore you with stories about my stuck mashes (okay, I actually never have those), sluggish yeast issues (that does happen to me from time to time), ingredient woes and so on. I realize they are only interesting to a minority of my readers.

However, I feel compelled to tell you a story of my last week of trying to homebrew. I think the story itself, regardless of technical issues, will have a broad appeal. The beginning section is a bit geeky, but if you persevere much human drama occurs.

I start by noting that I brew on a propane-powered system either in my unheated garage (with the large door open for safety reasons) or on my driveway when the weather is nice.  I have a pretty nice system – three tier, pump driven, with flexible volume capacity (anywhere from 10l to 40l works great, with calculation adjustments). It is portable, so it stores nicely up against my garage wall and can easily be wheeled into place. The only downsides are the requirement of an outside water source (my garden hose) and the propane, which is an inefficient, finicky gas.

In all, this means I don’t brew in the winter. Most years I can sneak a brew session in late November or early December when the thermometer peaks just above zero (that is all I need – enough to make the water flow), and then start up again sometime in March, usually later in the month.

This year, not so much. Winter hit hard in mid November, with tons of snow and the mercury never again got anywhere near zero. Scrub the late season lager plan (a pilsner was on the schedule). Then March was a nightmare. After a short teasing early in the month, for which I was not ready, we got another solid wallop that stretched through to just over a week ago. So much for my March plans.

So you can appreciate I was in a bit of an impatient state. Virtually all of my stocks were depleted. I was antsy. Brew days are therapeutic for me. I need one every few weeks to relax me, take me away from life’s stresses, and give me for one day a singular focus. For many years my five to six hours of brewing have been highly valued moments, for the process as much as the end product.

But last week it finally seemed like the clouds had cleared. The weather forecast was good. My schedule was clear. Saturday April 5 was going to be my inaugural 2014 brew session. I decided on one of my favourite recipes, a Steam Beer (the one that a few years ago became Taste 25 for the Taste of Edmonton Festival). I procured the missing ingredients from Edmonton’s best homebrewing store, Lendrum Winning Wines Plus, finessed the recipe and water chemistry and awaited the day. I smacked the yeast pack on Friday morning (it was fresh) and later that day ground the grain (I sometimes grind the day before just to minimize brew day distractions). I even brought the garden house inside to prevent it freezing overnight (I have that most unfortunate experience in the past).

All that was left before going to bed was to prepare my step-up, which is a larger volume of starter to which to add the yeast pack to build up the total number of cells ready to ferment. For ales, or in this case a lager brewed at ale temperatures, I go with a 2-litre starter pitched at high krausen if possible. (Don’t worry, the technical stuff is basically over.)

I get everything ready, add the yeast to the growlerI dedicate to yeast propagation which is full of wort and put the airlock on. All is good. I decide to move it to a more out of the way spot on the counter.  As I set it back down on the counter a sudden and very unexpected gusher of liquid starts up on the side of the growler, near the bottom. I am stunned for a few seconds, unable to comprehend the disaster unfolding before me. In a raging torrent all the liquid in the bottle explodes out onto my kitchen floor, over the cupboards and me. Within a couple of seconds, before I can even react, my entire starter is lying on my kitchen floor.

My brew day flashes before my eyes. I can’t believe it! In the depths of shock and despondency I think I will never brew again, the beer gods have turned against me.

As my head cleared, I figured out the growler had an undetected hairline fracture, that with the slight liquid pressure finally gave way. Understandable but hardly appropriate solace.

In the middle of the night I wake with the faint hope that

What my original beer was based upon.

What my original beer was based upon.

maybe, just maybe, Winning Wines has an extra California Lager yeast (really the only yeast that works with this style) and maybe I can brew on Sunday instead. In the morning I rush through the Strathcona Market shopping and head straight to the store. Alas, no appropriate yeast. As I debrief with store owner Andrew, a guy behind me in line says “I think I might have some California Lager yeast at home. Want it?” I quickly assent. After a couple of phone calls I find myself at his westside home, thanking the universe for this generous and kind homebrewer who is the embodiment of homebrewing solidarity. I get the yeast and take it home.

As I get ready to smack it I notice the date. Produced on November 2012. Uh oh, I have had bad experiences with older yeast. Still, I am in no position to second guess. I smack it, cross my fingers and wait.

The next day, nothing. I scrub the brewing plan, thinking maybe I could book a day off work mid-week if it comes to life, not an insignificant song and dance. As Monday turns into Tuesday the pack barely budges. I can almost feel my body burst at the unsatisfied expectation.

I concoct a different plan. It is clear at this time there are not enough viable cells to make the pack work. I don’t want anyone thinking I am disappointed in my good beer samaritan, for I remain highly thankful to him for his generosity and sense of solidarity. That the yeast didn’t work is not his fault. I will still deliver to him the promise beer for payment.

But by this point I simply cannot wait any longer to brew. My brewing juices had gotten flowing and I was experience a serious case of “blue mash tun”, as it were. Plus I am know most of the following two weeks are goners in terms of work and other life commitments.

My plan is to set the Steam Beer malt bill aside, design a new recipe and plan for a new brew day with a completely different beer. Fortunately I had a second yeast (an Irish Ale yeast) ready for my subsequent batch, so I just mobilized it sooner than planned. I smack the new pack, build a new recipe, grind the grain and, with a great deal of trepidation, move to the step up with a newly dedicated growler. All goes well. Whew! Shortly after the brew session itself goes very smoothly. The only (short-lived) issues was a hose leak requiring a quick re-adjustment. The beer? An Irish Red Ale. A reliable standby for my system. It now sits in the fermentation room bubbling away.

Success! And indeed it was. My mood improved immensely after the long-awaited brew session.

Of course, I can hear some of you asking, why set aside the malt? Why not just build a new recipe, or days earlier just smack the yeast you had to salvage a Sunday brew? Fair questions. That would be a reasonable take. However – and hence the title of this post – I could not bring myself to compromise in that way. Steam Beer is a picky beer. My experience is only the California Lager yeast really draws out the hybrid character of style. Plus my particular malt bill is uniquely designed for this beer and I couldn’t quite figure out another style that would work with it, even if I shifted up the hops, water and yeast.

So my decision is to save the malt for a real Steam Beer. I have already ordered a new yeast and am rapidly searching for a spare spot in my schedule in the next couple of weeks to use it. So really it is a success all the way around. A good brew day, plus an excuse to fire up the kettles again very soon!

The things we do for the hobby we love so much.

1 comment to What We Do for the Joy of Homebrewing

  • Stephen

    Great story, I think we can all relate to the joys/pitfalls of homebrewing, but it is a labour of love after all.

    As someone once told me when I was starting out, “You know you’re a homebrewer when you end up mopping a celing.”

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