Brewing beer is an awful lot harder than I thought it would be. At its heart, beer is simple. Steep some grain in hot water, grab the resulting liquid, boil it with hops, get it into a big jug, dump some yeast in, let sit for a couple weeks, and you have beer. Easy, right? Well, no. Working with big pots and a gallon of boiling liquid is something I have found to be cumbersome and messy, especially with just one dude in the kitchen. And then, there have been little things, little missteps, that have conspired against my beer. Oh, and some pretty big screw-ups too, like 1) not being able to use the racking cane correctly, and 2) breaking the racking cane and gouging my hand up pretty well on the shards. Nice. Welcome to homebrewing.
Some would criticize me for not taking a more traditional approach to learning brewing. You know the drill. Start with malt and hop extracts, and brew pale ales for a year, before moving on to something truly exciting, like brewing DOUBLE India Pale Ales. Well, gee whoopee wow. Pardon me as I faint from all the excitement. No. Sorry. I don’t want to brew a pale ale. There’s just no way I’m going to be able to brew a pale ale better than that of Sierra Nevada, or Oskar Blues, so why bother even trying? Also, why do I want to go to all that trouble to brew something that I can go pick up at Publix, for $8.99 a six-pack?
If I am going to brew…and let’s face it, I now know brewing to be a LOT of work…I’m going to apply that effort toward beer that is flat out interesting, beer with bold flavors that isn’t seen too often on supermarket shelves.
I’ve been inspired greatly by what has been going on in Florida, with breweries like Cigar City making over the top, yet very interesting and well-done beers. Closer to home, we have the Funky Buddha, just crushing it on a weekly basis with its range of refreshingly tart fruit Berliner Weiss-style ales, and desserts-in-a-glass like No Crusts PB&J, Maple Bacon, Bonita Applebum, and Last Snow. Then we have established brewers like John Wakefield, making nationally-recognized Berliner Weiss with seemingly every tropical fruit available. Finally, there’s the upstart Gravity Brewbar, following in that vein with some compelling Florida-specific brews of its own. All those guys have made me want to try my hand at brewing beer; that’s the kind of beer I ultimately would want to be able to brew. It sounds ridiculously simple, but I want to brew the beers I would most want to drink.
One beer I really want to drink again and again is the aforementioned No Crusts PB&J from the Funky Buddha. My first attempt at brewing was going to be my own spin on that. I don’t have a recipe for it, so I figured I’d take a recipe for a strong-ish porter, and add the desired adjuncts (peanut butter and jelly, literally) into the boil. To say this was harrowing is an understatement – I felt like my temperature control was all over the map. It was too hot, then too cold, then too hot again, and so on and so on. Then, when I finally got the beer into the fermenter and waited two weeks, embarrassingly, I had issues with the racking cane (a siphon mechanism) and could not get the beer to siphon out into bottles. Plus, it looked like sludge…it looked gross. Disgusted with myself and all patience exhausted, I tossed the beer, watering my condo’s bushes with it. Lesson learned in this episode? Use dried peanut butter, because the stuff you get from the store is too fatty. Unfortunately, I still had learned nothing from my racking cane debacle.
Next up, I was dying to do a coffee stout, with coconut and real vanilla beans. This is the beer pictured below.
In this case, I again committed a variety of tactical errors, but at least I got a beer in the bottle. Damn the torpedoes, I was going to do that if it killed me. And of course, it nearly did. This time around, my temperature control was good, and I felt more comfortable with the brewing process, even though the cumbersome large pots still tripped me up a little, transferring a gallon of boiling liquid between them. The idea with this beer was to utilize fresh coffee from Miami’s own Panther Coffee in the boil, along with coconut. Then, if that wasn’t enough, I intended to truly send it over the top by “dry-hopping” it with two Madagascar vanilla beans.
Major Error #1 – I didn’t toast my coconut. This allowed for too much fat, and it killed my foam. The beer is carbonated, almost a little too carbonated, but the foam retention stinks. It bubbles up furiously like a bottle of kombucha tea, and settles down just as furiously.
Major Error #2 – Even after some practice with plain water, when it came to crunch time, I still was unable to use the racking cane. I got the siphon to work with water, but I just couldn’t do it with the finished beer. Therefore, I had to pour directly from the fermenter into the bottles. Aside from being horribly messy, this meant that LOTS of the trub (sediment) made in into my bottles. What does that mean? Well, it means it’s one ugly beer, with a bunch of sediment floating around. Mind you, I’m not afraid of that, but it’s unsightly to say the least. I’m one who finds the visual aspect of beer important, and this beer fails in that regard, because apparently I have no clue how to use a siphon. I broke the thing and cut myself in the process. I’m going to admit defeat on this one and buy an auto-siphon. Hopefully that will help, because so far, siphoning has really been my Achilles heel. It’s sad how it’s the simple act of transferring liquid that is causing my greatest brewing tribulation.
I have to say, ugly as it is, I’m happy with both the smell and taste of my beer. I wanted this over the top coffee, coconut and vanilla beer, like something I’d get at the Buddha. The coffee I used from Panther was awesome, and that comes through in the aroma and flavor loud and clear. There’s coffee, caramel and chocolate, no getting around that. I’m also getting the coconut, which I love, because I feel that some commercially available beers brewed with coconut are sorely lacking in any real coconut flavor (Maui Coconut Porter, I’m looking squarely at you). Also, steeping the fermenting beer with real vanilla beans has made this a bonafide vanilla bomb. Again, sometimes you get commercial beers supposedly brewed with vanilla, and it’s faint. I so did not want that. Breckenridge Vanilla Porter is the worst offender, I feel….where’s the freaking vanilla? You’re looking at a huge fan of vanilla. If I’m going to use an expensive ingredient like whole beans, I’d better taste and smell it…and here, I do. Figured that by “dry-hopping” with it, I’d get more of it in the aroma, and I think that was a sound decision.
Aside from the obvious execution errors, I like where this beer is going; I think it’d be a worthwhile one to try and brew again. But next up…I’m planning to have another go at that PB&J.