The Brooklyn Growler

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

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.

Filed under: homebrewing, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Is a 55% ABV Beer Still a Beer?

The Scottish rascals at BrewDog Beer have fused craft beer with roadkill. BrewDog’s End of History beer weighs in at a whopping 55 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Why, that’s enough to kill a passel of varmints. BrewDog claims it’s the world’s strongest beer.

Each bottle of End of the Century, which costs $650 to $900 per, comes in a roadkill koozie. On the BrewDog blog, owner and brewer James Watt explains the beer –

The End of History was designed to challenge people’s perceptions about what beer is and how it can be enjoyed, served and packaged. We wanted to fuse art, craft beer and taxidermy to make a statement. It is part of our mission to show people there is an alternative to monolithic corporate beers and to beer and elevate the status of beer in our culture.

A Google News search of BrewDog about a fortnight after the story broke produces some 200 articles in many major publications (Forbes, BBC News, MSNBC, Wired, Eater, and The Independent). And they all pretty much say the same thing – golly! this dern beer is inside of a squirrel carcass and it’s got a high-alcohol content! The end.

When asked about the inspiration for the beer, Watt talks about corporate beers versus craft beers.

“The real catalysts for a binge-drinking culture are not well-crafted beers but the monolithic corporate machines that have cultivated a culture of quantity rather than quality amongst UK beer drinkers,” says Watt, speaking to the Telegraph.

Only twelve bottles of End of History have been brewed. It’s an expensive process to create such a high ABV beer, which I’ll explain in more detail below. But I can’t help but think that a craft beer that costs nearly a grand a bottle is also a beer that is going to be enjoyed by a beer enthusiast who is less interested in corporate monoliths cranking out lawnmower beers than enjoying the exclusivity of the beer.

What’s All the Fuss About?

“There is a huge distinction to be drawn between custom taxidermy and the cosmetic industry where hundreds of thousands of animals are bred, experimented on then slaughtered,” says Watt to the Telegraph.

Say what you will, but for however much the beer is going to cost, it’s going to have to be in a vessel that is special enough for some dude to want to put it on the shelf in his man cave and say, “Look at this crazy thing! There’s beer in it!”

Taxidermy is gross. Humans do it to prove their dominion over the beasts of the field and the fish in the sky and the fowl in the sea. Maybe it’s a nobler death for roadkill to be a beer koozie than to decay by the side of the road, but if it were me, I’d rather be dead on the side of the road. And also, I’ve seen roadkill. The difference between a varmint that was hit by a car and a varmint that was captured and killed and then wrapped around a beer bottle is a pretty steep difference.

A Sam Adams Utopia – which is a small-batch, high-octane (25 percent ABV) beer – comes in a nifty bottle that resembles a copper brew kettle. A buddy and I used to sit at the bar of a brewpub and lust for a bottle of Utopia that sat on the top shelf. One weird night with a little too much money burning a hole in either of our pockets and we woulda chipped in to crack that thing open. But so the point is, after buying the coupla-hundred-dollar beer, you still have a souvenir to show off to your dumb buddies.

What About the Process Makes This Thing Special?

The beer is a blonde ale with an infusion of juniper. Because of its alcohol content, End of History is stronger than most spirits – bourbon, gin, vodka – and should be drunk in smaller quantities than your average beer. Pour it in a shot glass, rather than a pint, for instance.

But the larger question remains – is a 55 percent ABV beer still a beer?

Beers are created through a process of fermentation. You boil a bunch of grain in a pot, add some hops and yeast and sugar, and then leave it alone for a while for the yeast to eat the sugar and you’ve got a beer.

Most spirits are distilled via a vapor process, where all of the components are heated and turned into a vapor, which removes the water (and most of the ingredients that offer flavor, color, sugar, etc.), while the alcohol-soluble compounds travel through the tube that collects the distillate. There’s not much flavor left behind in the alcohol-rich liquid. The smoky, wood-barrel flavors you taste in bourbon comes from the barrels that the bourbon is aged in. Some studies are proving that vodka has no taste at all but what you do taste is whatever was in the water that was used to dilute it down to bottle proof (for more info, see this post by Cooking Issues, the French Culinary Institute’s blog).

End of the Century was freeze distilled (aka fractional freezing or fractionation) to reach this volume of alcohol. BrewDog had to start with a beer – a lot of beer; a whole lot of beer – in order to properly freeze distill it down to a smaller quantity of liquid that retained a beer-like taste, while also retaining a high-alcohol content. The process of freeze distilling involves freezing the beer and then diluting the remaining liquid. It’s really hard to do this because you need to have a very mature yeast strain that can survive the cycle of freezing and thawing. With Freeze distillation much of the water is lost but not so much the flavor or body or alcohol or sugar or (and this is really important, especially with beer) the yeast.

So Is End of the Century a Beer?

Well, it certainly started off life as a beer but ended as something that isn’t quite that. A beer doesn’t need to be distilled to be a beer. A beer’s a beer. It also doesn’t need to have a high ABV just to be enjoyed. I’m reluctant to call End of the Century a spirit also. I will say that its twelve buyers really bought into the hype. After all of the press and what was a successful marketing of a high-end alcohol drink, the leaving of BrewDog’s marketing manager is also something of a question. The picture indicates that it’s less of a beer and more of a liquore.

Honestly, what End of the Century reminds me of is an olde timey medicine that will cure you of what ails you, especially if it’s sobriety.

And also, if you’re buying something called End of the Century in 2010, which is pretty close to the beginning of the century, you’re willing to overlook the misuse of small details.

If you want to try a freeze-distilled beer, there’s always an Eisbock. It’s nowhere near 55 percent (somewhere between 9 percent and 40 percent, usually) but at about $10 a bottle, it’s something of an indication of what End of the Century might be like, and it can be enjoyed by just about anybody, which is as non-corporate a thing as anyone could want really.

Filed under: breweries, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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