Still Learning

30 Jul

wp-1466872968472.jpgI brewed today, as I have done every five weeks this year. I have just finished the last of the clean up, at the 7 hour mark. The actual brewing was pretty much wrapped up at the 5 hour mark, pretty good testament to how well I am currently practicing my craft. Clean up always lags a bit. There is no time pressure once the beer is in the fermenter and the yeast has been pitched (a brewer speak word for “added”.)

One of my co-brewers and I both noticed that after about twenty minutes, the boil seemed to be slowing down. The temperature was still right where it should be, 220F, but the liquid wasn’t roiling in the way it usual does.

After the wort had gotten to a boil, I turned to one of the teaching activities I had planned. Several of my co-brewers are just getting started. I think I’ve mentioned before I really enjoy being able to share my knowledge. On a brew day, I can do more than just lecture. I intentionally had a few tasks lined up so each of my helpers could pitch in more directly.

Process is part of learning. Knowledge of ingredients is key too. On a past brew day, I made some hop teas and tried to make malt tea. I used our electric tea kettle to boil some water and add it to small samples of each ingredient. The hop teas worked very well but the malt teas in no way resembled how malts work in beer.

At Homebrewcon, I attended a seminar given by a maltster. Quality control is key for making malt, just as with beer. Some of that is probably pretty cut and dried but a fair portion is subjective, called sensory evaluation. In order to judge the taste, aroma and other aspects of malt, the best way is to make a small wort, or unfermented beer. Commercial malt makers have very complex and expensive machines to make consistent worts. For them it is a great way to assess variation from year to year and batch to batch.

The seminar, aside form pulling back the curtain on quality assurance and sensory evaluation at the commercial scale, presented a method any home brewer can perform in their own kitchen. It is designed both to be easy and to produce highly consistent wort, at least good enough for home brewers to do their own sensory analysis. All you need is a coffee grinder or food processor, a way to heat water, coffee filters, and a thermos.

I went to grind my malt specimen to make some wort using this technique. The stick blender failed to turn on. I consulted with Andrea who uses the gadget more than I do. She owns the weekly meal planning for our family. She was puzzled, it didn’t work even when we tried another outlet. Odd but the blender is old, maybe it was time to replace it.

I set aside the fixings for the wort sample and we just focused on the hop tea. The beer called for some hops new to just about everyone there. The exercise was still a successful, hands on learning experience.

The timer for the boil finished. The beer still seemed unusually calm but the temperature looked fine. I had already arranged my pumps for the whirlpool so plugged them in. Nothing. I hit the rest button on the GFI and plugged them in again. Still nothing. Then it occurred to us, maybe the circuit tripped. Sure enough, a quick scan of the breaker box down stairs showed one of the 30amp appliance circuits had opened. I reset and we were able to wrap up the beer.

I’ve written about similar glitches a lot, in short posts and longer ones like this one, over the past year and a half. Each time I try to understand how I could have prevented the problem or fixed it in the moment. I had high hopes for today. I brewed my last beer on my own just to focus on those parts of my process that seemed most prone to problems. I had tons of notes, a plan and the will to double and triple check.

Here’s the thing I realized today. There will always be glitches on a brew day. Brewing beer is a ridiculously complicated hobby no matter how you do it. I had no prior experience to equip me to realize that running the tea kettle to prepare the wort samples while I had the massive 2250watt heating element going in my brew kettle was just enough load to cause that circuit breaker to trip.

Avoiding glitches isn’t the point. A brewing glitch is a teachable moment in disguise. I now know the signs to watch out for that my breaker has silently tripped. Knowing to look for this, it is easy to test and fix. I could not have figured this out without it happening to me at least once. In over six years of brewing in this kitchen, it had never happened to me before.

I have only ever poured one beer down the drain. It may have turned out OK but I was worried about potential contaminants that might make someone sick. I have had only one beer get infected and it was so late in the process not every bottle was affected. About one in four still tasted fine. I have made twenty-six beers in about six and a half years. Twelve out of thirteen isn’t bad.

Because of the damped down nature of the boil, this beer won’t be as strong as I meant. It should still be very tasty and totally worth sharing. The recipe is solid, I made two test batches to really refine it. I would never even consider pouring this batch down the drain. Not what I was trying to make but still very good.

A glitch may make me miss a target. My bulls-eyes as a brewer keeps getting smaller as a consequence of focusing on the technical aspects of the craft. The overall target for a good, drinkable beer is still very large. Beer ultimately is a living thing and very, very forgiving. I can drink and share a beer that wasn’t what I intended but is still enjoyable. If I missed the target, have good beer, and learned a few new things, that is actually a pretty great day.

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