Brew Day: English Brown Ale

Before I get on with the story of my first brew day, here’s a summary of what I learned from my experience:

  • When steeping grains, it’s probably best to just remove the pot from heat and try to insulate it as best you can, or have a setup where you can be constantly monitoring the temperature so you can make adjustments quickly
  • Boil with the lid off – it prevents boil-over and lets DMS escape
  • Ice baths cool the wort quickly enough for me
  • It’s worth using a pot for ladling the wort into the fermenter to avoid break material clogging the funnel filter
  • Getting a spray bottle for your sanitizer and planning out a space for drying will make things go easier when you realize that you’ve got blood on your stopper and forgot to get a gravity reading

At 11:00 a.m. I removed my kit from the fridge and moved my hop pellets from the freezer into the fridge. I activated my Wyeast smack pack and set it on the counter. Brew day was finally here, and by 1:15 p.m. I’d begun my efforts in earnest.

The first step was to mash my malts. There are three ways to mash: mashing at a constant temperature, mashing with controlled temperature steps, and decoction (which uses the addition of specific volumes of boiling water to attain desired temperatures).

My beer kit specified that I should mash in 3.5 quarts of water held at 154 degrees for an hour. I filled my brew kettle with the water and brought it to 160 degrees in about 10 minutes on high heat. When the temperature was down to about 155 degrees (but was not stabilized there), I put the malts into a muslin bag and dropped the bag into the water. Since the brew kettle has a 16 quart volume, the water actually did not quite reach the top of the grain bag, so I had some pokes at it with a spoon, trying to wet the entire surface of the bag.

I tried to control the heat of the water using the burner and the lid, but found this to be incredibly difficult. I took the temperature of the water every 5 to 10 minutes and found that it varied between 140 and 170 degrees, reaching temperatures that are both too low to produce sugars and temperatures high enough to produce an excess of unfermentable dextrins. I also often adjusted the grain bag when taking the temperature of the mash in order to make sure that all the grain was being hydrated. I noticed that often if I left the bag for more than about 5 minutes, it stuck to the bottom of the kettle. Being concerned about burning the bag or the grain, I started to be more vigilant about adjusting the bag, but it still became stuck to the bottom several times throughout the mash.

Simultaneously, I prepared 7 quarts of water in my 8 quart stock pot. By the time the mash had been proceeding for an hour, the sparging water was 10 degrees shy of the desired 170 degrees. I removed the grain bag and set it into a collander placed atop the brew pot. At 2:20 p.m., I took the sparging water (now the appropriate temperature) and poured it onto the grain bag. I additionally try to massage more liquid out of the grain bag using my hands, although this was slow going as my hands are not heat-proof. Once I felt satisfied with my work, I set the heat under the brew kettle to high, and it reached a boil in about 10 minutes.

I now stirred in the dry and liquid malt extracts until they seemed fully dissolved, and added the hops. The boil was killed, but recovered 5 minutes later. I was able to reduce the heat to medium with the lid on to sustain the boil. Every 5 minutes or so, the lid would need to be lifted slightly to allow the bubbles on the surface of the boil to collapse and prevent a boil-over. I noticed that the bubbles seemed to be depositing some sort of crud on the side of the brewpot that looked like the hops. I simply scraped them off the walls and stirred them back into the wort. I also noticed that when the wort was stirred and rotating, the boil altered in character so that periodically a jet about an inch in height would erupt from the center of the fluid, while the rest of the surface was quiescent.

In the final 10 minutes of my one hour boil, I added Whirlfloc to the wort to help coagulate the proteins and aid in clarification. I filled the sink with cold water and prepared to move the wort into the bat. I had also read online about a brewer who froze a gallon jug of water and then sliced off the bottom and the handle and was able to then place approximately a gallon of ice into his wort to aid in cooling (this strategy ensures that you can rely on the quality of the water used to make your ice, as opposed to just using bags of ice). This had seemed like a nifty idea to me, so I had prepared the jug of ice, but I found it incredibly difficult to slice through the bottom and difficult to steady the jug. The end result was that the jug slipped and the knife sliced into my thumb.

Now concered about bleeding on my equipment and into my wort, I simply tossed the jug of ice into the sink, and moved the brew kettle (with the lid off) into the bath. I added some ice packs and all of the ice in my tray to the sink as well. Soon the wort had cooled to about 160 degrees F, and I replaced the lid. I knew I could enhnace the cooling if I stirred the bath, so I removed the ice packs and jug of ice, drained and refilled the water, and dumped a bag and a half of ice into the sink. I could now stir the bath, and I cooled the wort down to 90 degrees.

As the wort was cooling, I added half a teaspoon of IO-Star to a gallon of water in my bottling bucket. I poured this into my fermenter, and splashed it around for one minute before pouring it back into my bucket. I dropped my beer thief, funnel, stoppers, and blowoff tube assemblies (both the 1/2″ tube stuck onto the cracked airlock and the 5/8″ tube glued onto the silicone stopper) into the bucket. I swished the sanitizing solution around in the funnel and through its screen several times, and after a minute or two bailed out all the equipment onto a towel. To my surprise, when I removed the 5/8″ blow-off tube, the bond between the tube and the stopper had been totally destroyed, though the glue was still plainly visible on the tube. I was therefore down to just the 1/2″ blow-off assembly. I found the sanitizing solution also loosened the bandage on my thumb, so I splashed the sanitizer over my hands as well for good measure.

With Colleen’s help steadying the funnel, I poured my 90 degree wort into the fermenter straight from the brew kettle. Hop sludge quickly started to clog the screen in the funnel, and I used my sanitized spoon (sanitized in the boiling wort) to clear it off the screen and dump it into the trash. I went through about 4 cycles of pouring in the wort and clearing the screen, growing more nervous about contamination from nasties floating out of the trash bin with each

Finally all the wort was transfered, and I popped a solid rubber stopper on it and shook up the wort. I didn’t shake it for the 5 to 10 minutes that Papazian recommends, but I was hopeful about the aeration nonetheless. I topped off the bottle with about 2.5 gallons of water straight from the tap. Using the adhesive thermometer affixed to the bottle, I was able to use the tap water to cool the wort to 70 degrees.

By now it was about 4:20 p.m., which by estimate means that from flame-out to pitching the yeast only about 40 minutes past. This is a lot quicker than I’d hoped for, but I’m also unsure of the times, since the activity interrupted my note taking. I pitched the yeast, put on the 1/2″ blow-off assembly, and swished the wort around to get the yeast some more oxygen and distribute them throughout the wort.

I then remembered noticed two things simultaneously. First, I’d forgotten to take a sample of the wort for a hydrometer reading. Also, I’d bled onto the stopper and blood was seeping through the seal into the fermenter. I dunked a towel into my sanitizing solution, and used the dry half to mop off the blood while using the wet half to re-sanitize the mouth of the bottle and the seal. I frantically took a sample with my sanitized beer thief and resealed the fermenter. Unfortunately my sample was pitifully small (partly because I didn’t know how a hydrometer actually works), and so I could not get an original gravity reading. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the yeast to work their magic.

Brew notes (short summary of brew day, gravities, temperatures, fermentation notes, etc.) will accompany a post reviewing the beer once it is ready for drinking.


5 thoughts on “Brew Day: English Brown Ale

    1. Dylan Bargteil Post author

      I would’ve thought you were used to this by now. I’ve fed you blood latkes three times! This is why the last time I made them I said to Colleen that as an apartment we consume a mildly disturbing amount of my blood. I’m fairly certain, though, that very little or no blood got into the beer.

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