The Brooklyn Growler

"Life is all skittles and beer." — Tom Lehrer

Annals of Homebrewing: Birch Oatmeal Stout Update

Oh, man, it’s good. This birch oatmeal stout is what Xmas tastes like. It’s one of those beers that doesn’t seem like much when it’s cold but as it warms up, it becomes fantastic – just what we wanted for the season.

It’s on tap at my friend Dave’s apartment. Stop by sometime, whydontcha?

Apologies for the brevity of this post. I’ve been hit with a lot of freelance work lately, and I’m a little fried. There will most likely be one more post to hit before I completely shut down for the holidays. I wish you and yours a very wonderful non-secular winter wonderland of joyous celebration.

Have a beer.

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Annals of Homebrewing: Birch Oatmeal Stout for the Holidays

Originally the idea was to make up an Xmas homebrew for all of our friends and family. As far as the ol’ pocketbook goes, it’s not a bad idea. Logistically, though, packaging up a few bottles of homebrew and mailing them off to faraway places is just asking for your Xmas gifts to explode in the back of a USPS truck.

(Ask anyone who has knocked over a sixer of homebrew in the closet and see what they’ll say about mailing the stuff. Volatile. Yeast can be volatile.)

But so it’s still getting to be the time of year when a stout really hits the spot. My friend Dave and I got together at his place this past Friday to get a beer going. Pictured above was the main impetus for a new brew – home-grown cascade hops from our friend Steve’s garden in Ohio. Dave received them a few months ago and had kept them in the freezer.

We decided to do an oatmeal stout with some birch shavings to add some extra flavor. A little bit of birch wrapped up in a packet with some hops smells amazing, by the way. The birch, as well as the ingredients, were all purchased from the excellent Brooklyn Homebrew in Gowanus.

We once watched a video of a mustachioed dude demonstrating some homebrewing techniques. Before he got started, the guy cracked open a beer and said something to the effect of, “If you want to brew a beer, you need to drink a beer.” Brewing is only part of it. Sitting around Dave’s kitchen, drinking too many beers and talking shit is the experience.

It’s what made me re-think my approach to this site. I started this thing because, first of all, I like beer. But it’s also a workshop experiment. I have acquired many bad habits in the last few years from my professional writing and editing. I lost my voice trying to emulate someone else in order to survive. Like a beer, this blog will take some time to get right. But that’s what I’m after. I want to be right.

Anyway, we’re going to move the brew over to some of Dave’s soda kegs before both of us depart for our Thanksgiving holidays. By Xmas we should be well and drunk on this stuff. I promise to keep you updated.

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Brewing Up a Stout With the Brooklyn Brew Shop

In the last few years, two homebrew shops have opened in Brooklyn. Both have confusingly similar names. The Brooklyn Brew Shop maintains a stand at the year-round Brooklyn Flea and retails all of its kits online, while Brooklyn Homebrew opened up a physical location in Gowanus.

Brooklyn Homebrew is the brew shop for the person who has had some experience. You can follow one of their recipes or buy what you need to assemble your own. The shop sells yeast, hops, and grain. There are also kits for the first-timer that are complete with everything you need to get started. You can also pick up books on beer and lots of other cool swag. It’s a much-needed homebrew supply store.

The Brooklyn Brew Shop, founded by Erica Shea and Stephen Valand, assembles starter kits with all of the requisite ingredients. You can purchase your kits at both the one-gallon and five-gallon size. The idea is to brew beer with a kit that is scaled for an apartment. It’s Brooklyn, right? Why didn’t someone think of that before?

A one-gallon kit like the one I bought costs $40 and yields about twelve beers.

The kit comes with a one-gallon glass jug, a racking cane, tubing, a thermometer, sanitizer, some hops, and grain. That’s it. You can buy more expensive kits with more stuff – bottle cappers, carboys, hydrometers, etc.

I’d been reluctant to get into homebrewing, solely because of the space issue in my apartment but decided it was time. So what follows is a play-by-play review of a Brooklyn Brew Shop kit. I invited over my friend Dave, who is an experienced homebrewer, to help.

Let me now bombard you with more disclaimers.

Dave is a far more experienced homebrewer than I am. His home-made wort chillers and soda tanks converted into kegs built into beer fridges make my one-gallon kit look puny.

Also, I find nothing more asinine than reading comments on Epicurious recipes where the home cook changed the recipe and was then surprised with the outcome. When it comes down to homebrewing, no recipe or kit or tutorial can guarantee that the beer you produce will be perfect. That comes from trial and error, years of practice, and whether or not you know what you’re doing. The best cookbook in the world can’t help a dunce in the kitchen. So any screw ups with the beer were mine and not the Brooklyn Brew Shop’s fault.

So, that said, on one rainy March day, my friend Dave and I got to work brewing up a batch of beer.

First step, boiling the grain to get out its sugars, color, and flavor. Since this was a stout, the boiling mash resembled a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. This is my favorite part of brewing – the smell of the grain being cooked down as it begins to release all of its sugars into the liquid that will eventually become the wort (pronounced wert).

After boiling down the mash, we made our first deviation from the Brew Shop’s instructions. They advise you to pour the mash through a strainer, separating the liquid from the spent grain and then pushing down on the grain to get as much of the liquid out as possible. Then, before discarding the grain, they say to run hot water through the grain to collect more of the sugars.

We collected the mash in a cheesecloth and squeezed it as dry as possible over another pot. We continued at this until as much liquid as possible had collected in the new container (my wife’s canning pot). The grain was done. I ran some hot water through the grain as a test but didn’t see much appreciable malt coming out. We moved on to boiling the wort.

In an email conversation, I asked Erica and Stephen for their reasoning behind straining water through the grain.

“Straining more water through pulls more fermentable sugars, flavor and color from the grain,” they say. “An easy way to tell the difference is to taste the grain after you strain it once, if it is still sweet then there are still sugars you can be getting out of it. You only want to strain it a couple times though because you can go to the other end of the spectrum and start pulling out proteins and tannins.”

At the beginning of the boil, the instructions advised us to add the Challenger hops. (Challenger hops are an English hop variety that are most often used in ales.) We decided against just tossing them into the boil. Instead, we made some hop bags out of cheesecloth.

“As for a hop bag it’s a matter of preference – you just want to make sure there is enough space for your hops to float freely in it,” say the Brew Shop folks.

We repeated this maneuver fifty minutes into the boil when we added the Fuggle hops (another English hop). I’m going to skip over most of the play-by-play with the instructions. (Rather than bundle up a sheet of instructions with your kit, the Brew Shop very cleverly publishes all of its instructions as downloadable PDFs. Reading stuff on the internet is still mostly free – get to it.)

We assembled a make-shift chiller to bring the temp on the wort down by placing the pot of wort into a larger pot that was full of ice-cold water. We then ran a constant stream of cold water into the chiller pot until the wort fell down to the appropriate temperature.

The instructions called for us to add the entire packet of the yeast, and the packet is more than enough to produce five gallons of beer. I was only doing one gallon. I’d had a problem with a previous brew where every bottle I opened exploded like I was at a champagne jam on New Year’s Eve. A friend who had experimented with a similar brew had the same experience.

For some specificity on how much yeast should go into a one-gallon mix, I went to Erica and Stephen again. “For yeast the dried yeast packets are automatically measured for 5 gallon batches,” they say. “We generally recommend using half the packet although 1/5 would clearly do but is harder to eyeball. Extra yeast mean a bit more sediment and give the beer a bit more of a yeasty flavor.”

When I did the brew back in March, I checked online for a calculation of how much yeast I would need to produce one gallon of beer and then measured it out using a digital scale.

From there Dave and I added some honey and dumped the result into the jug, setting it up so it could burp for a few days before being locked down for two weeks.

After a few days, I sealed the airlock and put the beer in my closet to finish up. From there I moved on to siphoning it into bottles. I won’t say too much about that, except if you’ve ever gotten a beer siphon going with little more than a racking cane and some tubing, then the moment the beer begins to pour into that first bottle – you feel like a god.

The beer turned out nice (pictured at the right). Like a good stout, it had elements of coffee and chocolate to it. The head was sticky and died down after a few seconds of resting. The hops offered a nice compliment of bitterness. So – an easy-to-drink stout. After polishing off a bottle or two, I put back a few to age in my beer cellar (i.e., my hall closet).

Five months later, I cracked a bottle open and took a taste. It aged well. The yeast was certainly feisty as it foamed over the top of the bottle a bit. The early ones hadn’t been that fussy. The yeast had still been busy in there. After some aging, I noticed more of a floral aroma from the hops. Truthfully, though rough around the edges, it reminded me quite a bit of a Casadian Dark Ale, though nowhere near as strong as the ABV was about 4 percent.

The Brooklyn Brew Shop assembles together a fine kit for the aspiring homebrewer. It has certainly inspired me to scale up my homebrewing operations. A one-gallon yield is OK, but for the time and effort you’re putting into it, you might as well just go for the five-gallon kit. Even if the beer turns out to suck, you learned something. If your apartment is too small, then move to a bigger apartment. Problem solved.

As other sites have noted, the homebrewing kit makes a great gift idea. A mighty glass jug makes Mr. Beer and his stupid plastic bottles that will eventually leak toxins into your brew look like Mr. Jerk indeed.

Kits and mixes can be purchased from the Brooklyn Brew Shop online, or every weekend at the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene.

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