Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bella Wheat, a.k.a. The Leap Year Beer

Today I'm writing about my first homebrewing experience: Bella Wheat - a Bavarian wheat beer I brewed on February 29, 2008.

When he sold me my brew kit, Paul Zocco, owner of Zok's, encouraged me to first brew a few batches of beer straight from a pre-hopped kit in order to get used to the process. I purchased two kits that day, one of which was the Edme Microbrewery Series Wheat Beer that became my first batch; the other was a Northern Brown Ale kit from Ironmaster (more on that later).

I wanted to start with a wheat beer because Elena is a big fan of hefeweizens, and this was the closest I could get (from Zok's) in a kit. A true hefeweizen (hefe means "with yeast" and weizen, "wheat") is unfiltered, i.e. the little yeasties are permitted to reside in the finished product, making it rich in both character and vitamin B12!

I must have studied the four sets of instructions I ended up with (a cheat sheet from Zok, the instructions on the side of the malt extract, and the Beginners Steps in my newly purchased homebrew books - How to Brew by John Palmer and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing: Third Edition by Charlie Papazian) for a week or so before feeling fully prepared to begin. Thankfully, and not surprisingly, all four sets of instructions gave similar guidance: some recommended a longer or shorter boiling of the wort; one said it was imperative, another optional, to start the yeast in water before pitching into the lukewarm wort.

Facing four sets of slightly differing instructions caused me to experience feelings of intimidation followed closely by liberation. Truth is, there isn't much to brewing beer (from a kit, anyway). And, even if you screw up (a little bit), the final product is usually more interesting than most of the six-packs you find in stores. Charlie Papazian, the Godfather of American Homebrewing, offers the following advice to homebrewers young or old, novice or experienced: Relax. Don't worry. Have a homebrew.

Brew Day
On this day, as I didn't have any homebrew yet, I probably reached for an offering from Otter Creek, whose mixed-twelves were frequent visitors to the beer shelf that winter. But I did relax, and not worry...too much.

After sanitizing all of the equipment I would be using that day, I began by combining the two cans of hopped malt-extract (12 1/2 c.) with water (11 1/2 c.) and brought the mixture to a boil, stirring vigorously to prevent the molasses-like extract from scorching on the bottom of my aluminum brew pot. After maintaining the boil for 30 minutes, I poured the near-boiling mixture into my fermenting bucket, which contained enough chilled (not quite frozen but plenty cold) water to give me a total liquid volume of pretty close to 5 gallons.

The initial temperature of the fermenting bucket, after I added the hot wort to the cold water, was 90-degrees F, and my task now was to reduce the temperature as fast as possible to room temperature so as not to kill off the yeast I was about to add.

I hoisted the bucket to our kitchen sink, packed ice around it and stirred as fast as I could to bring the temperature down as quickly as possible - speed is of the essence. After 15 minutes, I pitched (added) the yeast, aerated (introduced oxygen, which yeasties like, to the wort by stirring vigorously (again)) the green beer for 10 minutes, put the lid on, and inserted the airlock. And that was basically it. In a lot of ways, brewing from a kit is a lot like preparing canned soup for fifty.

Fermentation Cha-cha-cha
At the time, we were living in a charming but drafty old house in Collinsville, Connecticut, and the only place in our apartment warm enough for the beer to be happy was next to the radiator. I was elated, 18 hours after sealing the bucket, to notice the first few bubbles of CO2 escaping through the airlock. Every time I passed through the living room, I would crouch down, wait for a bubble to pop, and sniff the escaping air for some clue as to what the final product would be like. Signs of fermentation ceased after about four or five days; and, after eight days, I trasferred the beer to a secondary fermenter.

Bottling Day
On March 20, after watching Michigan State (my alma mater) knock Temple out of the NCAA Tourney, I bottled and capped with no surprises. My notes from bottling day say it tasted of alcohol, but not much else. That was good enough for me at this point - evidence of, at least partial, success.

Here's what I wrote in my beer journal on March 27: Final product was darker and more flavorful than I expected. I like the flavor despite the intensity, but will try one can of extract plus the comparable amount of dried malt next time. Bella Wheat tastes very similar to a beer Carlo (my father-in-law) gave me for my birthday - Lumpy Gravy a 2007 brown ale from Lagunita's Brewing Company.

And on November 14: ...Elena and I chilled and drank the last bottle of Bella Wheat. The beer matured into what Elena describes as "thick and caramely." I was impressed by the head that developed, and the rich, sweet aroma. The sweetness approaches unpleasant, with subtle cidery hints. The effects of priming sugar over time? In any case, the character of the beer is much changed from the beer I brewed and drank this spring. This is an argument in favor of setting aside a few beers from each batch to sample over time. In this case, 9 months later.

Bell Wheat was my first born, and consequently holds a special place in my heart. I was very proud to share that beer with friends, family, and coworkers, even though the process was simple enough for a toddler to pull off and the final product reminded people of anything but wheat...

I'm think about brewing another Wheat, or maybe a Saison, this summer, once Elena and I move back to Connecticut in July. One tempting recipe I found recently was for an Apricot Wheat, which called for pureed apricots and sounded like a real summer hit. I found the recipe while surfing Bryon's blog. The recipe was offered by Hunington in response to the all important question, What should I brew for a summer family get together? Good question Bryon. And great answer Hunington. Stay tuned...



E-Kitten said...

I feel so special to have impacted the decision to make Bella Wheat as your first born. Thanks.

Dionysum said...

I was thinking a nice wheat would be a great summer addition. My brother successfully talked me into a white instead as it is supposedly easier with better results. I have a nice brown porter for you in less than a month when you arrive.

Brewfus said...

Can't wait. I can taste it already... Err, maybe that's the coffee in my left hand. Looking forward to a brew day, Mr. Gray.

rissykay99 said...

This is what I've learned from living with a brewer- always, always wait at least a week longer than you want to before you sample your beer. It never fails that he pops one open only to say "Ew, this one is not good." Then a week or two later he'll open another and say "Ooooh...that's good."

I guess tasting it too early is part of the process.