Brew Day – California Common

What better way to spend a #lockdown May Day than in brewing beer? This one a California Common all-grain kit courtesy of the good folk at HomeBrewtique – a small company supplying low-volume beer-making kits (4.5l; 8 pints) and equipment, set up by women beer lovers and still run entirely by women. HB is still able to supply a few things in these times (although they have now run out of California Common) and the customer service is first-rate.

And a very impressive thing it is straight out of the box, too (or, rather, bag since HB typically supply their kits in a rather lovely jute bag) – a kilo of vacuum-packed grains to stay fresh in transit and during the few days it sat in my office; hops (pellets this time) in a tea bag-style arrangement to help keep back the debris; and all the sanitiser, dextrose (brewer’s sugar) finings and yeast that you need; plus 8 A5 pages of instructions and a helpful short guide. The little black number, by the way, is additional and contains HB’s own ‘Grainstay’ – essentially a fine mesh bag packed small and contained in a small pouch that will itself be handy in small batch hopping.

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This time I’m also using HB’s own plastic fermenter which, helpfully, comes ready supplied with a tap and a bottling stick to facilitate the bottling process.

So, after trying a few simple all-grain brews, I’ve opted for the brew-in-a-bag method (BIAB – more accurately, mash-in-a-bag, really) as a way of keeping back more of the debris which, at both bottling and drinking time, has presented a few problems firstly of technique and then of taste; while I’ve also abandoned – at least, for now – the demijohn which I used previously, this being impractical for dry hopping and also with more than a few weak spots in terms of the ease (and hygiene) of bottling batches of this size. The BIAB method is also a little quicker since it eliminates the need for sparging, although yesterday I continued with the sparge stage (and also with recycling the wort), firstly since it’s the best way of ensuring as much of your fermentable sugars are transferred into your boiling pot as possible; and secondly because, well, it is one of my favourite words.

My decisions here stemmed from the problems I had with bottling my black IPA and which I’d feared on brew day itself. The amount of debris in the fermenter was considerable and, after I’d dry hopped, left me with barely six x 660ml bottles of beer, of which I’d be only really confident of three while a fourth presented real concerns and which, I suspect, is already oxidised. At least it hasn’t – yet – blown. I’m looking forward to drinking what I can of the batch – though that won’t be for a few weeks yet as it’s currently conditioning – but the bottling experience was a stressful and not particularly enjoyable one. There clearly is a better way.

The California Common brew day went well enough although – once again – I failed to give myself enough backup liquor to top-up, leading to a second, somewhat extended, cooling process in the fermenter. The Grainstay looks to have done a decent job in holding back some of the grain and hop debris, with the amount of sediment in the hydrometer jar being visibly less than before (while still being there…). The fermenter being plastic means I can’t see what’s in it as regards a sediment layer, which is a drawback compared to the glass demijohn, as is that I can’t check quickly – without removing the lid which I’m loath to do, even briefly – on whether the yeast is doing its job. This is quite important since the amount of yeast supplied in the kit – the brand supplied is a known slow-starter, by the way, for all its other merits – was precise rather than generous. It was enough, although I rehydrated it firstly as good practice and secondly as a way of trying to maximise the number of yeast cells in operation. I do have some suitable backup dried yeast, just in case things don’t happen as they ought.

So, after two weeks in the fermenter, two weeks of conditioning in the bottles and then a further two weeks (or so) of storage, my California Common (essentially an American pale ale, but with more woody spice than citrus notes coming from its use of Northern Brewer hops which German migrants brought to the rather different brewing practice in the warmer climes of California) should be ready to drink. In the meantime, the sample in the hydrometer jar was, once it had clarified over a couple of hours, a beautifully clear amber colour, showing excellent promise. High hopes for this one!

In the meantime, and speaking of recycling, yesterday’s spent grains are now drying off in the oven and I’ll be using them to try and make some granola, in line with the Home Brewtique recipe. Well, if you don’t come out of this #lockdown with… &c, &c.

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