Tuesday, August 20, 2013

First... Ok, Second, Homebrew!

Many no doubt know one of my favorite hobbies in the last few years has been home brewing.  I was first introduced to the process in college, when my roommates were interested in making some beer ourselves.  One of them had a brew shop near his hometown, so he invested in some ingredients and some, ahem, equipment.  Before long, he was making batch after batch in rubbermaid tubs under the beds in the room.  What was produced was quite nice.  Even with rudimentary equipment, he was able to conjure magic in a bottle.

I wish I had gotten more involved in brewing right then, but sadly, it lapsed after graduation.  It wasn't until a few years ago that I found a Mr. Beer beginner home brewing kit on clearance after Christmas.  I brought it home and made the batch.  The process for Mr. Beer was pretty simple.  Mix the pre-hopped malt extract syrup with water, pour in the yeast packet, and let it ferment.  After fermentation, add some priming sugar, bottle it up, and let the bottles naturally carbonate.

It is true these instructions will get you a drinkable product.  Without a thorough knowledge of how fermentation works and how ingredients affect the final product, the beer can be bland, flat, or not properly fermented.  Turns out my first few batches fermented in a basement that was much too cool for fermentation, and I wasn't motivated to make another one.

My parents gave me a book, How to Brew by John Palmer.  This book explains in much more detail the processes of making beer, wine, and cider.  I decided to try again, starting simple.  I mixed some sugar water and fermented it with bread yeast sitting around the house.  After two weeks, I mixed this flavorless fizzy alcohol solution with two packets of Kool-Aid mix and presto!  Weird tasting homebrew hooch!

Fast forward a bit, I had much better equipment and was making a variety of beers and apple ciders with different ingredients, yeasts, and techniques.  Beer is complex, but I never lost my love of the simple "wine" and "cider" drinks consisting of store-bought fruit juice, added sugar, and wine yeast.  Going to Ireland, I knew I couldn't bring all of my beer equipment, so I was planning to start over with very simple equipment and ingredients.

When we arrived, I made plans for getting started in brewing.  100% apple juice is available and cheap at the supermarket here.  My planned fermentation container was a 5 litre jug made for drinking water.  The problem was yeast.  Sara studies baking and brewing yeast genetics professionally, but I hope she will forgive my oversimplifying the following description.  The yeast we use for baking bread, brewing beer, making wine, and fermenting mashes for spirits are the same species, saccharomyces cerevisiae.  We (humans) have bred this one species into thousands of different varieties with different attributes, depending on their intended use.  Baker's yeast in everyone's kitchen is bred to produce a great deal of carbon dioxide quickly with less alcohol and even a little bit of sour flavor for some kick in our bread.  This kind of yeast in brewing does just what it is bred to do.  The product will be drinkable, but will not be very high in alcohol and will have some very "bready" flavors.  Different kinds of brewing yeast are bred to work quickly, slowly, in high temperatures, in low temperatures, to produce flavor compounds of fruit, spice, and an infinite and always growing variety.  These yeasts are not available at supermarkets, and must be special ordered or purchased at a specialty brew shop.

Ireland has several home brewing shops, but unfortunately, none in Dublin.  Any purchase made must be shipped or delivered by courrier.  This is fine for a large order, but I just needed one packet of yeast, less than one Euro total order.  No WAY am I going to shell out "a fiver" for shipping on a ninety-cent packet of yeast.  I had to wait until our next free shipping Amazon order to get the yeast I need.

Or did I have to wait?  I had the juice, I had the jug, I had some bread yeast.  Maybe I could do a one litre return to my bread yeast brewing roots?  Yes, I could. Yes, I did.  Yes, It worked.  No, it didn't taste good.  No, I don't want to talk about it.

With the arrival of our last Amazon order, I now had everything I needed.  Except for sanitizer, but you can't let that kind of thing worry you...

Apple juice, sugar, yeast nutrient, and yeast on display
From left to right:  yeast nutrient (from the supermarket, strangely) yeast,
sugar, four litres of juice, brewing notebook at bottom.
Ingredients, assemble!   Get everything together and clean in one place.  I cleaned everything with lots of soap and very hot water in lieu of sanitizing.  Should be ok, if it gets contaminated, I just get (still edible!) apple cider vinegar instead of hard apple cider.

Measuring demerara sugar for Cider
Demerara sugar, up to the 200 mL line in the cup.  We don't have a scale, so I just have to estimate measuring by volume.  What did you expect with a process like this?

Pouring apple juice to dissolve the sugar in a measuring cup for cider
Pouring some juice onto the sugar.

Pouring hot water into the sugar and juice to dissolve the sugar
 Topping up with some hot water for dissolving

Dissolving the sugar in the measuring cup by stirring
Umm... stirring

Pouring apple juice into the water jug fermenter
The rest of the juice going into the fermenting jug

Yeast nutrient with a measuring spoon
Measuring some yeast nutrient

Getting ready to pitch in yeast
Getting the yeast ready to pour

Page of brewing log book with the details of the cider batch
Careful record keeping in the brewing notebook. This all makes
sense to me somehow.

The cider is ready to ferment in the water jug fermenter
The fermenter ready to go under the sink for a week
Once the sugar solution was topped up in the bottle, there use just a tiny amount of air space in the jug.  This was a little worrying as the first stages of fermentation can cause quite a bit of foaming.  The jug was placed in this mixing bowl to catch any spillage.

Important!  This jug is not sealed completely.  To use a cheap jug like this as a fermenter, there must be a way for gas to escape.  To set this up, tighten the lid all the way, then give the jug a gentle squeeze.  While squeezing, SLOWLY unscrew the lid until air starts to squeak out with the pressure of your squeeze.  The lid must be tight enough that some pressure builds up in the bottle before it escapes.  This creates a positive pressure difference once fermentation begins that keeps any air or contaminants from getting in while avoiding exploding sugary bombs under the sink.

Keep reading for the next steps and the final tasting!


  1. Cory, "Yes, I could. Yes, I did. Yes, It worked. No, it didn't taste good. No, I don't want to talk about it."

    Best quote ever.

  2. I can't wait to see if it bubbles over on you! Tom


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