Simmer in the city

Beer By BART is about good beer and transit planning, optimization of beer appreciation jaunts in the greater SF Bay Area, and map and rail strategy, with these notes on the side. It is not a homebrewing blog. So this entry is a departure from our (infrequent) travel, festival and random commentary.

Preparing to brew with the Thirsty Hopster
Preparing to brew with the Thirsty Hopster

Gail typing: Steve and I took a great class last spring — weeks of intent and intensive beer tasting. Steve had gotten into a discussion while hanging out at City Beer and heard about a tasting course to be taught by a Grand Master beer judge, John Watson. We signed up, and plunged into a tour through BJCP styles without having known anything about that organization of trained volunteer judges. Since we only wanted to learn more about styles, tasting and flaws, we both dismissed the idea of becoming judges from the outset. Somewhere along the line, I got interesting in taking the exam. I read a lot about brewing science. So I passed the exam and started judging. My fellow judge students have encouraged me to brew, and I developed a nice little rant about how a wine judge would be startled to be asked if he or she made wine at home… Quite reasonable. I like that stance.

Then in July I went and made a batch of beer anyway. It was a great sensory experience, and I ended up with a flavorful but seriously undercarbonated porter. (I have to admit it’s just not a success, even considering the historic accuracy of lower carbonation for the style. My first attempt was still too flat. I plan to improvise some hearty beer soup recipes with the rest of it.)

Meanwhile I’d been talking with JJ of The Thirsty Hopster about brewing together. Two new homebrewers with improvisational dreams, we went against common sense and made a crazy plan. We chose a big, bold beer recipe, changed it around and confidently set out yesterday to do a creative, crazy yet solid collaboration beer. I believe it’s my second and her fourth brewing adventure.

As JJ describes in a funny and detailed post, the major milestone of getting a vigorous rolling boil never happened for us. After our satisfying partial mash and sparging, we struggled to get the brewing pot up to boiling to add the needed malt extract. Once we had all those extra sugars in there from the extract, needing a higher temperature to actually boil again, the leak in the gas line either increased, or the gravity of the simmering syrupy wort was just too much. We got a gentle boil after several hours of burning fuel on a back porch camp-burner flame that kept blowing out. We improved the wind-screening, and added the first hops, hoping to bring it back quickly to the rolling boil of our dreams. It merely simmered at about 205 to 215 degrees F.

Tough break. Or non-break, to be precise about it. About 20 minutes into the “boil” I attempted to drive home to add additional firepower to the sides of the kettle. Getting across town and back and circling for 17 minutes to finally park semi-legally in the lower Haight took a total of 40 minutes. JJ stayed on pace and did all the additions, and was cooling the pot when I finally returned. No rolling boil, no hot break. So we’ll see what happens.

The thing about reading so much about brewing science and not having genuine depth of experience is that I “know” the importance of the vigor of the boil and the perils of hotside aeration. However, I didn’t know until looking it up this evening that indeed we probably should have gently stirred our watched pot that would not boil, once we were into that reality. JJ suspected that might help, but she used the term “aerate” so I got all hung up on remembering that the time for aeration is at pitching time, when the yeast-friendly temperature is reached and the wort is racked into the fermenter. However, it seems that careful non-splashy stirring of near-boiling wort might help some in such a situation, it appears. Or maybe not. I hope nevert to have to deal with a low flame again, of course.

Anyway, hanging out with Jessica is always fun, and we finished with some tasty barrel aged special brews at Toronado. (A remarkably complex Marin Brewing and Green Flash freaky funky collaboration beer, and a luscious barrel-aged version of the inimitable black lager Death and Taxes from Moonlight called “At Arms Length” … if there’s any left, and you like experiments, get by there and grab some!)

We’re sure to learn something from this. And the good news is that it’s fermenting away happily. We’ll find out what’s up when the yeast is done. Yay for yeast. Go you little micro-organisms, go.

[UPDATE: Ever the skeptic, it was hard for me to believe that the beer was pretty good when we bottled it, and that now, after some time in the bottle, it is strong, complex and delicious! It made a good Belgianesque dessert beer for Thanksgiving, and has ranked respectably (but no prizes) in two competitions. JJ is not blogging these days due to her new job, but I know she likes it too. Big takeaway for us newbie brewers: Time is a very important ingredient in a big beer like this!]

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