Saturday, August 26, 2006

The hop harvest - a time for wet hopping

September is hop harvest season. Fresh hops are picked off the bine and dried. The drying makes the perishable wet hop much more stable and useable all year-round. These dried hops are called dried whole hops, and this is the traditional way of handling hops, you just put them whole into the brew kettle. Recently more and more hops are being processed into pellets which makes them even more stable, in fact they can keep their quality properties for a much longer time. At the same time they also take up less space as they are more space efficient, meaning that it takes less to achieve the hopping qualities you need.

Recent years have introduced a new phenomenon: wet hopping (sometimes also referred to as fresh hopping or green hopping).  Freshly-harvested wet hops are used directly in the brewing process skipping the drying process. This imparts much stronger, and different, flavour and aroma qualities to the beer than what dried hops would do.

Because wet hops is a perishable product it must be used very shortly after it is picked off the bine. This typically means that the brewers that do make wet hopped beers get shipments overnight from hop harvesters so that they can make their beer the day after. Because of this wet hopped beers is a seasonal product. In many ways this is similar to the beaujolais nouveau only this time for beer.

As far as I can tell this trend started in the hop-growing regions of California and the Pacific Northwest. There are even wet hop festivals! It is indeed a very nice way to celebrate the hop harvest.

I tried to get hold of some hop rhizomes this spring, but soon found that I had started searching for them too late, so I have to wait until next year to make my own wet hopped beer. But if you happen to have a hop plant, consider making a wet hopped beer. Now is the right time, unless you want to wait another year.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

35 and counting

In August 2002 I made my first beer. I had then been interested in beer for a long time, and had been curious about homebrewing for a few months. At the time I didn't actually know anyone who brewed their own beer, so I had to read a book and lots of articles on the subject before taking the plunge. The brewing process was frightening as there were a lot of unfamiliar things to worry about. As I had nobody to ask for help I was really nervous. But the brewing session went just fine and I didn't run into any surprises at all. It was actually quite straightforward. Having a brew day under your belt helps a lot. Today I can brew a beer blindfolded (well, perhaps not, but you get the point).

The beer was an Extra Special Bitter made from liquid malt extract, some grains for steeping, hop pellets and dry yeast. Since then I have brewed a total of 35 different brews. Each batch is 25 liters, which typically gives 23 liters of finished beer. Even though I try hard I cannot actually get through all of it myself, so I try to give beers to friends and family and all those who seem to have an interest in beer and homebrewing. This is of course a nice thing as it is great to get feedback (positive and negative).

To give you an indication of what kind of beers I brew, here's a list that includes the beer style and the alcohol level:
  • #1 Extra Special Bitter, 4.7%
  • #2 Weissbier, 5.1%
  • #3 Honey Pale Ale, 5.0%
  • #4 Robust Porter, 5.8%
  • #5 Dubbel, 7.3%
  • #6 India Pale Ale, 6.0%
  • #7 American Pale Ale, 5.1%
  • #8 Ale (The Norbrygg Experiment 2003), 4.7%
  • #9 Weissbier, 5.5%
  • #10 English Brown Ale, 4.6%
  • #11 Imperial Stout, 8.5%
  • #12 Bitter, 4.5%
  • #13 Dry Irish Stout, 4.2%
  • #14 Belgian Golden Ale, 8.5%
  • #15 American Brown Ale, 6.4%
  • #16 Witbier, 5.2%
  • #17 Extra Special Bitter, 5.9%
  • #18 Imperial IPA, 9.2%
  • #19 Bitter, 4.8%
  • #20 Weissbier, 5.5%
  • #21 Witbier, 5.1%
  • #22 American Pale Ale, 5.9%
  • #23 India Pale Ale, 5.9%
  • #24 Chocolate Porter, 6.6%
  • #25 Cider, 4.8%
  • #26 Extra Special Bitter, 5.0%
  • #27 Spiced Christmas Ale, 6.3%
  • #28 Witbier, 4.7%
  • #29 Witbock, 7.7%
  • #30 Extra Special Bitter, 6.0%
  • #31 Oatmeal Stout, 5.5%
  • #32 Kölsch, 4.2%
  • #33 Dubbel, 6.5%
  • #34 India Pale Ale, 5.6%
  • #35 Rye IPA, 7.5%
Beers #24, #25 (a cider), #27, #31, #32, #33, #34 and #35 are being served on draught. A few more are in bottles.

As you can see from the list above, Extra Special Bitter, Witbier and India Pale Ale seem to have been the most popular styles so far. All beers have been brewed to different recipes, even the beers in the same style.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The brewing process

These are the steps you will have to go through in order to make beer:
  1. malt
  2. crush
  3. mash
  4. sparge
  5. boil
  6. chill
  7. ferment
  8. package
Malting is a process to let the malt develop its enzyme content and render it suitable for mashing. The process involves soaking, sprouting and then drying grain.

Unless you've got too much time on your hands you might what to skip the malting process as professional malting companies will do this for you at low cost. Their malting quality will very likely be much better than anything you could make yourself. So you typically buy premalted grains off the shelf instead of making it yourself. That said, it would of course make an interesting research project.

The malt quality have a big impact on your brewing efficiency. A low quality malt will get you a less flavourful beer and (fortunately) less beer. A high quality malt will be much more consistent and let you extract more malt sugars.

If you make your beer from malt extract you can skip the crushmash and sparge steps as these have been done for you. The malt extract is the end result of these steps (plus the fact that it has been concentrated down to syrup or powder). With malt extract you can move right on to the boil. This will save you a couple of hours in your brew day.

The crush is when you take your malt and crush it in small particles exposing the inner starch granules. The purpose is to make it easier to extract the malt sugars. You will need a malt mill to do the crushing.

The mash is when you mix the crushed malt with hot water until it resembles a thick porridge. The hot water will trigger enzymes in the malt that turn the starch into malt sugars, simple ones or complex ones depending on the temperature. The mash will then typically be left alone for about an hour or so. This to ensure that all the starch have been converted.

To get a step further the sugars are then to be separated from the grain husks. This is done through a process called sparging or lautering. There are several ways to do this, but the easiest one is to just drain the liquid (called wort) through a filter and into the boil kettle.

Once the wort is collected in the kettle the next step is to actually boil it for an hour or so. Throughout the boil hops will be added in several steps to lend bitterness, flavour and aroma to the beer.

We're now almost ready to hand over the wort to the yeast so that it can turn all the sugars into esters, carbon dioxide and alcohol. To avoid killing the yeast the wort have to be cooled down to a lower temperature. The cooling process is typically done in a short period of time with the help of a wort chiller.

The wort is then transfered to a separate fermentation vessel where it can be fermented. The fermentation is typically done in a closed environment reducing the chances of infection. A carboy with an air-lock on it is quite common. The yeast is then added to the cool wort. It will now become beer as the yeast eat up the sugars. Once all the sugars and nutrients have been depleted the yeast will go dormant and settle out on the bottom of the fermentation vessel.

We now have beer that is ready to be packaged. The beer can be bottled or transferred to kegs. It will also have to be carbonated, either mechanically or naturally.

This posting gives a brief overview of the brewing process, but it has just scratched the surface. So I'll be posting [much] more detail about various aspects of the techniques, equipment and ingredients involved in future. If there is anything particular you'd like to have covered please let me know.

Friday, August 18, 2006

"Purity laws"

In fact the previously listed ingredients, water, barley malt, hops and yeast[1], were the only allowed beer ingredients according to the historical German Reinheitsgebot (literally 'purity requirement', or 'purity law' - if you will). Lars Marius Garshol and Ron Pattison have interesting views on it - both recommended reading.

The Reinheitsgebot originates from Bavaria, Germany (1516), but it has been enforced in several other countries up until modern times. In Norway it was enforced between 1857 and 1994. In practice this meant that brewers were constrainted with regard to what kind of beers they could make. Historically the law has been used as a means of market protection, stamp of quality assurance, and for marketing purposes. But creativity and diversity have suffered...

[1] Yeast was actually not included as constituent of beer in the original version of the law as people did not know that it existed. It was added later when it was discovered by science.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

So, what's in a beer?

To make beer you need:
That's it. Well, there's nothing stopping you from putting other things in there as well, but this is what is considered to be the minimal number of ingredients.

What are hops and malt you say? Follow the links to find out.

If you are new to beer brewing you may want to start out by using malt extract instead of barley malt as this simplifies the brewing process somewhat. This is fine at first, and you can make some great beers with it, but after a while you'd want to take the step up to all-grain brewing. Doing so will give you a wider palette of flavours and aromas to play with.

I started out with extract brewing myself and did about 10 brews before taking the step up. I have not regretted that move. Anyway, at least for your first brew you should use malt extract as there are enough new things to keep track of the first time. Trying to do and learn too many new things on the first brew is not neccessarily a good idea. You'll have plenty of time to perfect your brewing skills later.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Why brew your own beer?

There are several reasons why I do brew my own beer. It is fun and you get to drink a lot of really good beer. Well, not everything is perfect, but there is a whole world of beer out there that one cannot really try unless you make it yourself.

Here in Norway, where I live, there isn't really much of a selection when it comes to good beer. The selection is decent, but you can drink your way through it in a few weeks time. Then what do you do? Well. Travel or stay home to make some yourself.

Norway is not a big country, about 4.5 million people live here, so the beer selection is never going to be huge. The decent beers that we do get here are for the most part bland Norwegian beers and a small number of imports. We do have a small number of microbreweries, Nøgne Ø and Haandbryggeriet being the best known ones as they are now being exported to several countries including Denmark and the US. The number of small breweries is increasing, but slowly.

Anyway, the main reason why I'm brewing I'd say is that I find it a very interesting hobby. It is a very creative process as a lot of brewing equipment and ingredients are involved. For each of the beers I brew I make my own recipes. This is half of the fun. Trying to pin down a certain beer style or a certain kind of profile is challenging, and you learn a lot from experimenting. After a while one is able to figure out how the ingredients work together and what it takes to achieve the right balance.

Learning is an important aspect of homebrewing. There is always something new to learn. There is always something you can read up on or experiment with. There is always some new kind of brew gear that you can build that make things more efficient, shortens the brewing process, increases flavour, or just looks cool. There is always some new ingredient you have been wanting to try out in a beer. You really never run out of ideas.

These are all, more or less, the same reasons why I work with computers.

First post

I've been thinking about starting my own blog for a long time, but have never really gotten around to actually do so until now. I intend to write about my beer brewing projects and anything beer. Sometime in the future I might also want to create another blog where I write about my professional interests which include computer programming and knowledge engineering.