Homebrew I: English Pale Ale

It’s official: I’m a home-brewer.

I tried brewing once, probably a decade ago, in Michigan. I had pretty basic equipment, and a kit from a big can, and I did it with The Complete Joy of Homebrewing to provide too much information and with no mentor to filter it.

It was a train-wreck. Among other things, my standard of cleanliness was nowhere near brewing standards, and in mid-boil, my third-grade teacher called (seriously?!) because she had heard I was back in Michigan and wanted to reconnect (SERIOUSLY?!?).* I made enough mistakes that the wort (pronounced “wert”) never so much as belched, let alone bubbled. For a couple weeks I had a murky brown liquid in my basement, stagnant as swamp water. Then I dumped it. Nobody told me I could get new yeast and re-pitch it in hopes of starting fermentation. I kept the equipment, but never went back to it.

Now I have a slew of friends who brew, or have brewed, and lots of practical experience to guide me. So back in September, four of us got together to brew: a porter, two 90 Shilling clones, and an English pale ale, my choice, because Bass Ale has long been my consistent favorite beer to drink, any time, any place.

Brewing notes:
Brewing went smoothly until late in the process. The first sign of a potential problem was after I loaded my fermenter in the van to return home, and noticed that the disinfected water filling my airlock was slowly, but steadily, dripping into my brew. I refilled the airlock, drove home, then looked at the temp gauge on the side of the fermenter, and saw that it was still pushing 80 degrees. I was not supposed to pitch the yeast into the wort until the temp was down to 78 degrees — and if you pitch it too hot, the heat can kill the yeast. The dripping airlock was a signal — as the sealed fermenter cooled, the pressure lowered, drawing the airlock fluid down.

My brewing friends were already reporting active fermentation, and nothing was happening on my end. I did some quick googling and learned: 1) It can be a couple days before things really get percolating; 2) yeast are tough, and can survive temps up around 100 degrees without any real ill-effects; and 3) if it didn’t take off in a couple days, I could get new yeast and try again.

My fears were ill-founded, as it turned out: by that evening, the airlock was bubbling merrily.

We brewed on Sept. 3. Within a couple of days, the fermenter was bubbling steadily every couple seconds; over the course of the next week it decelerated by about half each day. By Sept. 15, active fermentation had ceased, and I transferred the brew to my secondary fermenter. I bottled on Oct. 9. On all three dates, the hydrometer showed about 4.5 percent alcohol, and the taste started out good (as wort) and improved steadily.

Beer notes:
The flavor is good: malt and hops balance well, with no “off” flavors so far. Chilled bottled drink very smoothly and easily — a little too smoothly, in fact — the colder it is, the harder it is to taste much of anything. At first I thought it was more like an English bitter (which, strangely, are less bitter than pale ales), but at closer to room temperature, the flavor and mouthfeel seem to “thicken up” a bit. (Not sure if that makes sense, but there you are…) At warmer temps, it reminds me more of Old Speckled Hen than Bass…though it’s been years since I’ve had Old Speckled Hen. Guess I’m due for a refresher, in case I’m misremembering.

One problem (aside from the flavor being a little too faint): it does not hold a head. I get about half or three-quarters of an inch of foam that quickly disappears. This may be an issue of glass cleanliness, but I don’t think so. We’ve also encountered one flat bottle that appears to have been inadequately capped. (Sorry, Butch — you didn’t have to drink it!)

This English Pale Ale kit came from Northern Brewer in St. Paul, and was brewed using Wyeast 1945 NB Neobrittania. I hope to compare it to the Brass Ale kit (a Bass clone kit) from Midwest Supplies in the near future. This coming weekend, however, I’m brewing Midwest’s Irish Stout. Wish me luck!


*Turns out she had a “money-making opportunity” she wanted to share with me and my wife — one of four people from my past who emerged that year to try to get me to sell Amway.

4 thoughts on “Homebrew I: English Pale Ale

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