Starting out brewing
Homebrewing has come a long way since I started by making a super weak cider. As the craft beer movement has taken off, the marketplace has responded to the corresponding growth of the hobby, and today homebrewers have access to just about everything available in the line of ingredients, including fresh hops of all varieties, every type of malted barley, and dozens of strains of yeast from breweries all over the world. In that respect, the playing field has been leveled. The best beers that I have tasted in homebrew competitions are beers that practically any professional brewer, would be proud to sell.
Likewise, the information explosion has benefited the hobby just as it has so many other pursuits. Books, magazines, and websites abound. Once I got the itch to homebrew again, I read a lot of the new material. I got excited by the prospects of quick, simple, all-grain brewing using products and techniques that promised commercial-quality results with little effort and a minimum of equipment. In fact, my initial plan was to use only low-cost off-the-shelf gear, permitting myself just one exception: a lauter tun that I decided to build because the design I preferred is not available ready-made.
Some of you may be surprised to hear this. You might think the natural course would be to get a nice single-tier brewing “rack,” as I call them, and go to town with it. Maybe you have seen these systems — a welded frame, three big kettles, three burners and a gas rail, three pumps, and yards of beautiful stainless piping. No doubt I could have been turning out good beer within days of taking delivery.
But I’ve done that. I worked with brewpub systems for nearly 10 years, first at Red Brick (makers of Laughing Skull) and then at Blackstone Restaurant & Brewery in Nashville. While they were not as flexible in some ways as the best homebrewers’ racks, the gear was pretty much on the same level. I wanted to do something different. I have always had a minimalist streak, which I suppose is a euphemism for being cheap. I blanch at the prices of these “ready-to-brew” systems. I wanted to demonstrate, first of all to myself, that you don’t need all that to make first-class beer.
The Limits of Simplicity
Then I started brewing. My first batch, brewed using the simple methods and equipment I wanted so much to champion, was from every point of view a disaster. Using the finest ingredients, including yeast from my former place of employment, I made a beer that was not worth drinking.
To be clear — it was not undrinkable, nor was it infected. But it was not worth drinking. A comparison with the pub beer that shared space in my beer fridge proved that beyond a doubt.
Things got a little better after that, as I corrected some deficiencies in the methods I was using. By the time I had made and flushed a few batches, I realized that simplicity can be taken too far. You compromise the quality of your wort. And bad wort makes bad beer.
As I continued to brew, I found that in order to improve the beer, I had to either modify a piece of equipment, or rethink how I was using it, or replace it with a new one. And in every case, these changes in equipment and procedure led in one direction, which was (as I should have expected) doing things the way I had done them when I was a professional.
Suffice it to say I recognized anew the merit of the typical pub brewery, which instances a series of design decisions that have been gradually worked out to make high-quality results possible with a minimum investment in floor space and capital.
This is not to say that every pub brewer makes the best use of his machinery. And not all pub breweries are, by any means, up to standard as far as equipment goes. I have seen systems so ramshackle that it seemed impossible to make good beer with them. Sometimes I have been surprised at how good the beer actually was — a tribute to the skill of the operator.
This also is not to say that I ended up with a miniature replica of the Blackstone brewery. What I attempted to do was to achieve the same functionality, in terms of process, ease of operation, and safety. The next two chapters explain what I was shooting for, and my design criteria and decisions.
Looking back, I don’t know why I was surprised at the results I got from my first batches. After all, I’m the guy who turned his back on extract brewing and implored countless others to do the same, precisely because the simplicity of the process is bought at the price of low-quality wort.
The place of Malt
I am not saying that I have never tasted a good beer that was made from malt extract. I have. I have even tasted a few that deserved, and got, medals from judging panels that I sat on. But for every beer of this caliber, I have tasted dozens that were mediocre despite being free of infection and other typical flaws. Their downfall was the unmistakable “extract note” that is quite different from the malt flavor of beer that is made in the traditional way.
Where does this “extract note” come from? And why do some, though few, extract beers seem to escape it? These are questions that have puzzled me for years. So far, the best answer I have found is that the process of vacuum evaporation is the culprit. I won’t go too far into the technical side of it, but the creation of malt extract syrup requires an extreme degree of concentration; the product is about 80 percent solids, compared with 12 percent for an average wort. The end result is a syrupy substance that has been darkened and caramelized and is, apparently, highly unstable. It begins to deteriorate as soon as it is made. To paraphrase what Dr. Johnson said about Scotsmen, then, something may be made of a malt extract — if it be caught young.
The trouble is that catching it young — and I mean within a few weeks of its manufacture — is highly problematic. Nobody is putting “born on” dates on packages of malt extract. And the alternative to syrup — spray-dried granular malt extract — seems scarcely any better. True, almost all the moisture has been removed, and that should make it more stable. But the drying process itself is a further insult. How all this will balance out in any particular case, such as a trial making the same recipe from one particular package of dry extract and one particular package of syrup, is unpredictable. It depends on the age of the samples in question and on manufacturing conditions, which may not be the same from one maker to another or even from one batch to another.
The only thing you can be sure of is this: the more a particular beer style depends on a clean malt flavor, the less suitable it is to being made from extract. Your best chance for a good result is probably something like a porter, with its caramel and roasted grain notes, or a well-hopped amber ale. Even here, of course, if the extract is old or otherwise defective, your beer will suffer. But you have a chance. On the other hand, if you are trying to make a pilsner or a wheat beer, forget it. The freshest extract in the world will not give a creditable result.
Those are the facts, and here’s my conclusion: extract brewing is a blind alley. It is a good introduction to the brewing process, and I still recommend that everyone make a few batches of extract beer to get familiar with boiling, hopping, cooling, fermenting, and packaging. As an educational exercise it is useful. But look on it in that light. Don’t think you will be able to make consistently good beer with this method, and don’t get sidetracked into a series of brews where you try different brands of ingredients in the hope of improving your results.
Over the next few weeks I will be putting out what I will be doing to get this bad boy burning again.