Home-brewing Foray: Kölsch Beer
I made beer that tastes like beer. Have the presses stopped yet? No? Sniff. Well, I’m not sure what else I expected it to be like, but it still felt huge to me.
You know what else felt huge to me? Getting to finally use the mouth-pipetting skills I earned in the endless titrations that made up chemistry practicals at Brijlal Biyani Science College during junior year abroad. Home-brew, you have officially made up for those times I had to run outside to spit out chemicals I had pipetted too enthusiastically into my mouth.
Okay, more accurately, my husband and a good friend and I made this wildly successful batch of beer. The beer-demption started with the best birthday present I have ever received: a beer-making kit. My at-the-time fiancé picked it up at the neighborhood wine, beer, and cheese supply store complete with glass carboy, thermometer, sacchrometer, lots of tubing, bottler, caps, and all the ingredients to brew a light, crisp Kölsch beer, which, if you haven’t heard of that variety (like I hadn’t) turned out to be something like a lager, but without the temperature restrictions that lagers require.
Now, let’s get some things straight. I’m not a beer snob who couldn’t stand to drink commercial slop anymore. I can’t tell Hefeweizen apart from witbier or other wheat beers, I usually make a bad face when I accidentally drink IPAs, and when other people say they can detect fruit esters, I just smell banana. Always banana. I also don’t have a beard, or ride a fixie, but hey, who’s counting. I do love drinking a cool beer on a warm evening, though. Or in the shower. And in the way that my friend Jenna’s cakes and pies are always eons better than something picked up from Safeway, the home-brews that I’ve drank have always been buckets better than even the Northwest and California craft brews we generally buy.
As our household has been slowly moving towards buying fewer and fewer processed foods, beer and other alcoholic drinks have remained some of the fierce holdouts from home production. Also, my husband isn’t as interested in crafty projects as I am, to my eternal sadness — even puppy eyes don’t tempt him — so this was a way for us to create something for the household together.
The one thing the kit didn’t have was a pot large enough for boiling 5 gallons of liquid. An old college friend, who turned out to live three blocks up our very street, had a connection and hooked us up with a brew kettle. Now, when I hear the word kettle, I think “pot, black” or at least something for boiling water on the stove with a handle and spout. Brewers use the word to mean a vessel to boil wort in. Kettle, wort, carboy, hot break – there’s a whole new vocabulary that goes along with this enterprise. Like languages with new-to-me writing systems, I can’t hardly resist a new craft vocabulary. Can’t wait ’til I get to sparging, mostly because it sounds a bit titillating.
Kölsch Beer (That Tastes Like Beer)
This time I won’t be providing a recipe because this is only intended to be a light-hearted jaunt through our messy beer-venture rather than something instructional. We followed the recipe provided with the kit, supplemented by reading through Byron Burch’s “Brewing Quality Beers: The Home Brewer’s Essential Guidebook”. And then we did a boatload of youtubing. Thank goodness for the interwebs. Brewing was one day of adventure in June, and bottling was a second day in July, about 5 weeks later.
Our carboy (big glass container for fermenting in) holds five gallons of liquid, so that was the amount we were aiming for. We set up the afore-mentioned 5 gallon brew kettle for boiling most of it, along with our smaller 2 gallon stock pot, in which we boiled plain water for topping off the brew.
Our ingredient kit used malt extract powder instead of recognizable grains or liquid malt extract. Actual grains take more volume to boil than our little kitchen allows, and are considered by Prof. Internet to be an advanced brewing technique. Next time, next time. We added the malt powder, stirred it up, then brought it to a boil.
Now, at this point we were supposed to see a “hot break”. You know when you’re making rice, and forget to check to see if it has boiled so you can turn it down, and next thing you know, all this foam is boiling over the edge of the pot? That’s a hot break.
We never saw one.
I stirred and stirred, staring at the pot, analyzing every little speck for indication of hot break-age, but after 20 or 30 minutes of boiling and considerable evaporation and wigging-out, gave up and added the hops. Once the hops were in, the wort boiled for 55 minutes, at which point we added a different type of hops for aroma, and let it boil a final 5 minutes (I wonder if those minutes could hear All Along the Watchtower for no good reason).
At the end of the post-(hypothetical)-hot-break (I’m sure one happened and I just never saw it), the wort had to be cooled down. Fancy, gear-oriented people do this cool set-up where you run cold water through coiled copper tubing placed into the hot wort that pulls the heat out of the wort super-fast-like, dumping steaming hot water out the other end of the coil. We did the jenky low-budget alternative of putting the pot in an ice-water bath in the sink. I had to keep adding more ice and more cold water, and stirred the wort to cool it down faster. Like in the bath.
While stirring, I looked for and did see a cold break. THANK GOODNESS. These breaks have something to do with proteins dropping out of solution at a certain temperature, or some other such fascinating scientific reason. Or we could go with mini demons being cast out from the clear beer. Mini demons it is. Beyond clarifying the beer, the cold break served to reassure me that I was Doing Something Right.
Once the wort had cooled down sufficiently, we poured it through a strainer into the glass carboy, leaving the bits of hops out, and pitched (= added) the yeast and the extra water we’d boiled to bring the volume up closer to 5 gallons. On the top of the carboy went a sweet little fermentation lock, and we covered it in a t-shirt to shield it from
peeping eyes light and shoved it in the closet.
Did I mention that everything that ever touched the wort had to be sanitized first? At some point when I was realizing we didn’t have a way to get a sample of the beer, I managed to shove something unsanitized into the beer. As soon as I pulled it out, both the husband and I froze and looked at each other for a long three seconds. Oops. Shrug. The next day, the wort was churning furiously, a petite Charybdis of yeast, malt, and water. We figured that meant it was working.
Fast forward three five weeks, past a wedding, a honeymoon, and a sampling that determined that our beer was successfully flat (from what initial specific gravity, we’ll never know) and we arrived at bottling day. My good friend came over and helped out with the whole process. She walked off with a six-pack for her troubles.
After adding priming sugar to the now-flat beer to feed the yeast so that the beer would turn out carbonated, it was time to move the party from carboy to bottle, which required the mouth-pipetting to start the beer flowing down the piping. Well, it wouldn’t have required it if we’d been wise enough to borrow or buy a big syringe or pipette starter, or anything to get suction going. As we didn’t have anything else, I came to the rescue with my long-dormant medieval chemistry lab skills, and did my best not to back wash. Fingers crossed.
First we had to get the beer out of the carboy into another container so it would be off the sediment. Once the beer was racked into the second container, we had to get the beer moving again, this time into a filling wand. Once the beer was flowing, we set up an assembly line.
One person filled the bottles, another retrieved the full bottles and passed them to the third person, who used the capper and all her or his upper body strength to crimp a cap down on the threadless necks. Then into boxes they went and into the closet for a few more weeks to develop bubbles.
We were impatient and tried the beer at one week. Low and behold, it tasted like beer, and was delightfully strong. I tried to name it “Eau de Rhomieux”, but was given several surprisingly dirty looks for my efforts. (You know, ’cause Kölsch is from Köln, which is Cologne in German…no? Rats. I would have thought any beer with rock dots would have more of a sense of humor.)
Somehow our relatively lax sanitation, over-boiling, and long fermentation didn’t kill the beast(ies). We have now polished off every bottle we brewed, except for two that are patiently waiting for the next brew session. Soon, my babies, soon.
Serve in a chilled glass on a hot summer’s day, in the shower, or over ice-cream.