Saturday morning I began cleaning out the garage, after years of procrastination and excuses. I made a false start two years ago and got through a dozen boxes of memorabilia before other demands took over and the job was abandoned. The room that theoretically is supposed to be a place to park the car soon soon reverted to its wild, primordial state of recycling bins, lawn care equipment, bicycle parts, and cardboard boxes upon plastic bins of the detritus of family life: all those items you have no need for today or this season or anymore but aren’t ready to part with, not yet.
This week was bottling week for my home brewery: last Friday I bottled a Celtic Ale (May 18 post), on Tuesday I bottled a Belgian style Dubbel (May 1 post), and yesterday I bottled my Christmas Ale, a recipe that attempts to copy Chimay Grand Cru “Blue”. I brewed the Christmas Ale on April 27, and racked it to a secondary fermenter on May 4, after the initial active stage of fermentation had settled down. Then it rested in a dark quiet closet for nearly six weeks until bottling day. Three days before bottling day, I pitched another dose of fresh yeast to prepare the beer for the second fermentation in the bottle. With most brews this second dose of yeast isn’t necessary, but when a beer has such a high alcohol level, it’s pretty standard procedure.
This beer was an experiment that turned out well. The basic idea was to brew an ale that mimics a lager. Lagers are not in the repertoire of most homebrewers and craft brewers – their need for controlled, lower temperatures for fermentation and conditioning than are needed for ale requires the acquisition of dedicated refrigeration equipment in most cases. Here’s the story of how I brewed an ale at home that is close in profile to a German pilsner – a “mock-pilsner”.
Celtic Ale is my “house beer”. It’s a malty, copper-colored ale with a thick, creamy head that lasts to the bottom of the glass, and at around 4.6% ABV it’s a great session beer. I first started making this as an attempt to make something like Highland Brewing’s flagship Gaelic Ale, which is my wife’s favorite commercial beer. After the first couple batches however, I started experimenting with aspects of the recipe, using the constant extract and specialty grain bill as a background to try different yeasts. The last couple batches I settled on a Scottish Ale yeast, which seems to suit the character of this beer well.
Warning: Long Post
This post is for a friend of mine whose wife is due to give birth any day now. He texted me somewhat frantically one morning, writing that he wasn’t going to be going to the pub much in the near future and would I please send him a list of the equipment he needs to start brewing. I texted back that I would put a list together and post it here and hey presto! today’s blog post was born.
This list is assuming a number of things:
1) you have a pretty much standard 21st century kitchen: stove, refrigerator/freezer unit, sink, and some counter space,
2) you are going to be brewing from malt extract with specialty malts (not all-grain) – this is how I currently brew,
3) you are going to be brewing ales (not lagers, which require colder fermentation temperatures and refrigeration as part of their conditioning),
4) you are going to bottle (not keg) your beer.
I am going to break this down into seven categories:
1) a book (or books)
3) brewing tools
4) cleaning agents
5) fermenters and airlocks
6) racking and bottling gear
I’ve enjoyed Chimay beers since I first began to drink them about 20 years ago. I like all three of them, but the Première or “Rouge” is my favorite, in an “I could drink this every day” sort of way. The monks at Scourmont Abbey have been brewing this beer since 1862, although the current recipe dates back to the late 1940s or early 1950s when Father Théodore re-established the brewery after World War Two. As described by the brewery, it is like all Chimay beers “mellow, forthright, and powerful”.
Why did I wait so long to try to make this beer at home? Perhaps it was knowing how difficult it would be to resist drinking it before it has matured. Although I have brewed a few Belgian Dubbels over the years, this was my first attempt to copy one from Belgium.
Today I am making my Christmas beer. Like many brewers (home or otherwise), I like to make something strong and special for the holidays. As a general rule of thumb, the higher the gravity a beer has (yielding a higher ABV), the longer it takes to ferment, condition, and mature. I try to schedule my brewing to take into account the varying amounts of time involved for each batch. Generally speaking, quickly maturing beers take around 4-6 weeks, medium-term beers 2-4 months, and long-term beers can take anything longer, up to and over a year! Last year I didn’t get my act together early enough to brew a strong ale for Christmas, and ended up making an Oatmeal Stout – it turned out great, but it was only 5% ABV.
This year I decided to try to make a copy of Chimay Blue “Grande Reserve”. I am following a recipe from the book Beer Captured by Tess and Mark Szamatulski. Often I will try to brew a clone of a commercial beer I like, adjusting or changing the recipe to suit my tastes or the ingredients available; just as often I concoct new recipes on my own after scouring through the books I have and postings on the internet for ideas. I’ve never brewed a Belgian Tripel before, although I’ve made several Dubbels, so I thought it safe to follow a recipe. In any case Chimay Blue is not called a Tripel by them – they call their “Cinq Cents” their Tripel – the Blue was originally brewed as a Christmas ale, in fact. From what I understand, it is basically a Tripel with a slightly heavier, darker malt profile, and the addition of “grains of paradise”, a spice. It will be the strongest beer I’ve made, with a target original gravity of 1.086, and around 9% ABV.