Summer comes late to Seabeck, this I know. But usually there is a stretch of glorious spring days to give me hope – a promise of warmer days and weekend bar-b-ques. We’ve had a smattering of sunshine over the past couple months. That’s all. It’s cold and rainy again, too nasty to garden or work on painting the house. Ten gallons of Glidden exterior satin in canary song yellow wait for me in the garage. Yes, I plan to paint the house canary song. True, it’s way too bright. My neighbors will complain, but I need something to bust me out of the steely grey days of a Seabeck. Canary song ought to do the trick.
The Iris bulbs are stubborn this year. Only a few blooms, deep purple and velvet to the touch, brave the cold. Even dandelions shiver, reluctant to pop a sunny head to the cold. But wild columbine, scotch broom, and clustered stalks of grape lupine flourish with knee-high blossoms so intricate and wicked. Scotch broom, columbine and lupine always prevail. They demand summer, and so do I.
Today I prepare for summer with a day of home brewing. Crystalized barley, sweet and fragrant, ground together with chocolate roasted barley and combined with light malt are the makings of an in-between beer, the beer to drink in the slow starts and stops of summer, a beer to enjoy before the hot days arrive. I’m using cascade hops for flavor and Mt Hood hops for aroma. The cascade hops are floral with hints of tropical fruits, like guava or maybe mango. Mount Hood hops are greener, a little pine, mowed grass, and a high note of ripe banana. I’m calling my attempt at amber ale, “Mountain Woman Red.”
I’m excited about Mountain Woman Red. It’s my first “big girl beer.” My beginner batch was an Irish stout concentrate. All the ingredients came in a kit. There was not much thinking involved, kind of like baking a cake from a mix or preparing lunch by opening a can of condensed soup. I popped the top, added to water, boiled, cooled, and added the yeast and waited. There wasn’t much more to the process. But the beer turned out fantastic, dark and creamy. And dare I be so bold as to say that my first batch of beer tasted quite like a fresh tap of Guinness? Yes, I said it. The results were awesome and gave me great confidence to take the next step to more complex brewing.
For me, the real tedium in making beer is the sanitation of all things that may come in contact with beer. Bacteria are my beer-making boogie men. I’ve never been much for Clorox bleach, but it’s a common tool of the trade. I soak everything from stoppers to thermometers and measuring cups to flexible tubing in a strong solution of bleach and water. I soak my hands too. I suppose I ought to wear sterile gloves but religious hand-washing seems to work just fine. The sterilization process eats up about an hour in my three hour routine.
After sterilization, I went to work on the wort. I wish there were a nicer word for this stage. I don’t like the sound of, “and know I will make the wort.” The word has negative connotations, reminding me that I grew knuckles full of the filthy things in the fourth grade. And then one day, the warts just disappeared. Anyway, I digress. In beer-making, wort is kind of like making tea. I placed the 2lbs of ground crystal Malt barely in a large mesh bag with 1/4lb of chocolate barley. The bag looks like a giant tea bag and works exactly the same way. I filled my trusty canner with 2 gallons of cold water and then lowered the tea bag into the water before putting it on the stove to boil. I used a medium heat to delay down boiling, hoping to get the most out of my grain. The water in the canner turned dark as it heated. A sample on a sterilized spoon reminded me of coffee and burnt toast. So far so good.
Once the water started to boil, I removed the bag of grain and added 7lbs of light malt extract. The extract takes good enough to eat on a buttered biscuit. It’s like a dark molasses but with the light aftertaste of clover honey. Nice. Once the mixture returned to a full boil, it was time to add the hops.
The fragrance of cascade hops stuns me. I had no idea. They don’t look particularly appealing in their dried state. I expected them to smell like alfalfa or a barnful of dusty hay. But I could not have been more wrong. I want to make hop perfume or body lotion or maybe a shampoo. I’m thrilled with the discovery. My mom has always told me the woes of picking hops when she was a teenager, but she never described the aroma. Perhaps hops are not aromatic until dried.
I packed 2 ounces of cascade hops into what looks like a white, fishnet stocking. The mesh is larger on the fishnet for the hops than the teabag for the grain. I boiled the cascade hops along with the malt and grain tea for about an hour. After removing the cascade hopes, I added a stocking stuffed with 2 ounces of Mt Hood hops and boiled for only 2 minutes. The idea with the Mt Hood is to leave them in just long enough to impart aroma. I’m hoping this works.
I didn’t waste the stockings filled with hops. I used them like coffee filters, putting them in the bottom of a funnel atop a 6-gallon carboy. I poured three gallons of ice water over the stockings, hoping to steal the last bits of flavor and aroma left over after boiling. This process is called, sparging. After sparging the hops, it was time to add the wort to the cold water in the carboy and topped off the jug to measure 5 gallons. Once the solution cooled to 70 degrees, it was time to add the yeast. Correct temperature is crucial. If the solution is too hot, the yeast will perish. If the solution is too cool, the yeast will be slow to react. I used an American ale yeast by Wyeast, 100 billion cells activated at room temperature and ready to go to work. The goal is to keep the solution at or around 65 to 70 degrees for the entire fermentation process.
The beer is resting now near the woodstove. Stoppered with a rubber plug and drainage tube, the yeast reacts and spews a foamy overflow into a catch basin below. I’ll leave it like this for a day, waiting for the yeast to calm down before swaping out stoppers and moving the jug to the dark recess of the stairwell closet. And in time (June 29th to be exact), I’ll have 5 gallons of beer to drink in the in-betweens of seasons.
All I can do now is hope and wait...