Amber Waves - Recap

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Alton recalls his show about honey, “Comb Alone.” Then he said bees were the only creatures that make human food, but that is not true: yeast also make human food. Alton puts the last jar of honey into a cabinet full of it and turns to face the audience. His face is covered with welts. “And,” he concludes, “yeast don’t have stingers.”

Yeast are fungi, which means they’re a bit like plants, and a bit like insects. With them, the enthusiast can brew his own beer. It takes a few unusual tools and a little bit of work. But it’s not difficult. It’s about creating an environment where yeast can thrive.

First Alton finds a brew shop. The right shop offers a variety of ingredients and doesn’t waste time and money on fancy decorations. And it must be run by someone who knows brewing. Alton probes the limits of the shopkeeper’s knowledge: when he asks for yeast, the counterman asks what sort of yeast. Alton pulls down a chart to explain:

• Ale yeast prefer warmer temperatures and live on top of the liquid. They work relatively quickly. Ales are robust and full-bodied with complex flavor, aroma and a “sassy bite.”
• Lager yeast like it cool and live on the bottom of the liquid. They work more slowly that ale yeast. Lagers are light, crisp, refreshing and mellow. Because Germans invented the American beer industry most American beers are actually German lagers.

Alton thinks it will be easier to make his brew at room temperature, so he selects an ale yeast. The counter man takes Alton to the yeast refrigerator where he selects a flask of liquid pitchable yeast. This is a yeast colony in suspension and it may be used immediately. Just warm it on the counter, shake it up, and open it slowly (there will be some carbon dioxide in the flask, as there is with a soft drink).

Barley stores energy as starch. Yeast cannot digest starch, so the barley must be malted before it can be used. This process involves storing the malt until it just germinates; the germinating cells produce amylase, an enzyme that breaks starch into sugars. The sugar-rich kernels are then roasted to produce malted barley. Brew shops sell malt extract, a product containing starches already broken down and ready for use. One might brew entirely from this malt extract, but the product would have weak flavor. Grains perk up the flavor.

Alton moves on to the hop. This is the female flower of a particular sort of bine (a climbing plant similar to a vine) more or less shaped like a pinecone. The flower contains glands that secrete a complex mix of oils, acids and bitter resins that provide a counterpoint to the sweetness of the barley. These chemicals also preserve beer to a degree (important before refrigeration was developed). Alton plans to add hops to his brew twice: once at the beginning for flavor, once at the end for aroma. Alton selects Cascade hops (from the Cascade region of the United States) and Kent Golden hops, from Kent, England. The shop owner returns with Alton’s grain, which he has milled.
Alton’s next stop is the food store, where he grabs four gallons of plain water (mineral and distilled waters are the wrong choice for this) and a single pint. And a seven pound sack of ice. Together, this is five gallons of water.

Alton discusses hardware next. He has lined up a pot that can hold three gallons with room to spare, a probe thermometer and a colander that can fit in a large metal strainer; that pair must have long enough handles to sit atop a seven gallon fermenter. The fermenter is the first piece of specialty gear. Essentially a large bucket, the fermenter has a tight fitting lid with a lock into which a bubbler fits. The bubbler permits carbon dioxide to escape without allowing germ laden air back in. The bucket also has a spigot for emptying the fermented product. You’ll need two such buckets and six feet of plastic tubing that fits onto the spigot. Finally, you’ll need a bottling tube and bottles; Alton recommends twenty ounce bottles with attached stoppers. If you get these things in a kit as most first time brewers do, you will probably also receive a racking cane, a capper, and a hygrometer (a device that allows you to measure the concentration of alcohol). Alton’s recipe doesn’t require these things, although he allows that learning to use a hygrometer properly is a good idea. Finally, you’ll need a tub or large bucket to sanitize the equipment.

Bacteria are everywhere and they will rain on your beer making parade if you let them. Alton prepares a very dilute bleach solution (just two ounces in five gallons of water) to sanitize the gear. Everything must be washed; it should start clean. Then it all goes into a bucket. Don’t worry about overflow; the edges need to be sanitized, too. Jam everything in there.

Two gallons of water and the barley go into the large pot over high heat. Alton deploys the probe thermometer (be sure it doesn’t hit bottom) to carefully bring the temperature to 155 degrees, where is should remain for about half an hour. This mashing process activates the barley enzymes. Alton warms his malt extract by placing it in a pot of water over low heat; a towel on the bottom of the pot keeps the malt container from melting to the pot. When the grain is mashed Alton adds the malt extract and raises the temperature back to high. He boils this uncovered, watching carefully– it will foam! Once it boils, he reduces the heat to a simmer and adds most of the hops. This hopping flavors the beer. After ten minutes or so he adds the rest of the hops. This dry hopping step adds aroma. He covers the pot and waits five minutes.

While he’s waiting, Alton puts all the remaining water and the ice into the fermenter. The ice water brings the temperature down quickly so the yeast can move in (they would die in the mash at its current temperature). The idea is to minimize the cooling period and therefore the chance that bacteria will find their way in. He pours the mash through the colander/strainer mix. The resulting mixture is “wort” (young beer). Alton’s wort ends at a 87º F, which is suitable for pitching yeast. Pitching yeast simply means adding it to the wort – without stirring. Remember that ale yeast prefer the top of the fermenting brew. He puts the lid on the fermenter and pushes the bubbler into its port, filling it with water as directed. Then he stashes the fermenter in a cool, quiet place.

The bubbler should gurgle from time to time for about seven days. In seven days, the alcohol and acid reach concentrations high enough to kill most of the yeast; they’ll sink to the bottom and the gurgling will slow. When the gurgling is more than a minute apart most of the yeasts are dead and the wort has become beer.

Alton’s beer is flat because all the carbon dioxide escaped through the bubbler. To add fizz, a second fermentation step is necessary, inside the bottle. To achieve this, Alton prepares simple syrup – ordinary table sugar is indigestible by yeast. The boiling process breaks the bond so that simple syrup contains monosaccharides that yeast can digest. It is important to use the correct amount of sugar: too little will leave the beer flat while too much will burst the bottles when the carbon dioxide pressure exceeds their tolerance.

Alton adds the sugar syrup to the second bucket. Then he pulls the bubbler and connects the tubing to the spigot. The other end of the tube goes in the second bucket. Opening the spigot drains the beer into the second bucket, leaving the dead yeast behind and mixing it with the syrup. Then Alton moves the second bucket to the counter and attaches the bottling wand to its spigot. Alton fills his bottles to the very top; when the bottling wand is removed the right amount of “head room” remains – this is the room where carbon dioxide from the second ferment will accumulate. When the bottles are filled and capped (Alton uses latex gloves to avoid cross contamination), he returns them to the cool storage place for seven to fourteen more days. At the end of that time, you’ve got good…beer!