Saturday, September 4, 2010

Brew D'État Makes a Pumpkin Ale

Ever since I first laid lips upon Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale and Southern Tier's Pumpking, I had wanted to brew a pumpkin ale. Little did I know, Dylan's experience with these beers had awakened a similar yeuk. So, we decided that today, Saturday, September 4th, we would create a pumpkin ale the likes of which this great nation has never seen.

There was only one tiny problem with this ambitious plan: WE'RE IN THE MIDST OF A NATION-WIDE PUMPKIN SHORTAGE. This little snag presaged a host of difficulties that plagued us throughout the tedious brewing process, such as forgetting to purchase a thermometer and not cooling the wort quickly enough before pitching the yeast.

However, despite all odds, we managed to christen our first fermentation vessel filled with all the precursors to a pumpkin ale. We don't know if it'll be delicious or even potable, but we do know that it looks pretty. So, without further adieu, Dylan and Chip will show you how to brew a pumpkin ale:

Step 1: Get equipment, and
sterilize, sterilize, sterilize!

You boys doing a science experiment?

Cleanliness is key because bacteria is bad, as will be discussed later. Thus, we did a lot of sterilization. Dylan is already sterile, so we saved some time there.

Step 2: Gather supplies

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make 48 bottles of ale.

Ugh. Damn this pumpkin shortage! Could it be a communist ruse to strike at the very heart of the nuclear American family by halting the production of grandmas' pumpkin pies? Or maybe it's just due to bad weather. Yeah, probably the latter.

Even online, pumpkin is mightily expensive. We were forced to improvise and purchased 60 oz of "pumpkin pie mix" instead. Will the extra sugar produce a bigger alcohol concentration or a cloying mess? Will the additional spices be complementary or disgustingly overpowering?

Who knows. However, this certainly isn't the craziest beer recipe out there. And, as if I didn't ask enough rhetorical questions already: Is Necessity not the mother of Invention? DNA test pending.

Step 3: Steep grain in water for 20 minutes at 155 degrees

I swear it's not my bag, baby.

Steeping (also called "mashing") allows you to harness DIASTATIC POWER, which is basically a fancy word for getting an enzyme to convert the grain's unpalatable starch into yeast-friendly sugar. In the case of barely, maltose is the end result. We only steep a little bit of grain to help provide flavor and proteins and some other good stuff that doesn't come with malt extract (see Step 4).

Step 3b (optional): Remove grain from water and munch away

Nom Nom Nom!

"Leaving No Trace" has never been so gross. It's like nasty, malt-flavored oatmeal. I'm pretty sure the taste is on par with gruel, so heaven knows why Oliver Twist would want some more. The above picture required 3 retakes, 34 mints, and a therapist.

Step 4: Add malt extract

Chocolate syrup's uglier, less friendly sister.

Wort (pronounced "wert") is a goopy, syrupy mixture containing mostly sugar and water along with assorted proteins, fats, fatty acids, and other fun molecules. It's what yeast loooove to nom and will eventually become your beer. We brewed with malt extract (many breweries do the same), which is essentially the same as wort.

Fancy-schmancy elitists who do all-grain brewing must get the wort strictly from the mash rather than a big jug of malt extract. In other words, by using extract, we bypassed the annoying (some say "rewarding") initial steps required to go from barley -> wort. An all-grain brewer would do a larger-scale version of step 3 (and a little bit of extra magic to filter out some junk). They then would follow the remaining steps exactly the way we did.

Safe to say, all-grain brewing and malt-extract brewing produce great beers. I liken it to the difference between 35mm and digital cameras, respectively: both require skill, artistry, and diligence to produce consistently good results, but the former demands a bit more attention and provides a few extra degrees of freedom.

Step 5: Bring wort to boil

I've seen this before...oh, I know, in a colostomy bag.

You boil the wort for a few reasons: to stop diastasis, to create what's called the "hot break" (a coagulation of proteins and other unwanted molecules that will eventually drop out of solution), and to sterilize your wort (reducing your yeast's competition), among others. It looks and smells pretty unappetizing, but it's necessary.

Step 6: Add bittering hops and a can of pumpkin

He's got the whole hops, in his hands.

Hops act as preservatives and make beer taste crisp, bitter, earthy, floral, and/or citrusy (depending on the varietal). They balance out beer's sweet side, affording it more palatal complexity.

The cone of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus (n.b.: not a character in Harry Potter), is where the hop's magical oils are derived from. Did I mention it's related to the marijuana plant? By "magical oils," I simply mean those chemical compounds which are useful in beer-making.

We used hop pellets, which look like rabbit feed in the picture above. Pellets and freeze-dried hops are common forms used in the brewing process. The hops added at the start of the boil will bestow most of their bitterness and almost no aroma (explained later). Our bittering hop de jour was Hallertauer, a so-called "Noble Hop," which is very pleasant and not very bitter. Thank goodness; who likes bitter pumpkins?

We also tossed in a can of pumpkin mix at the beginning of the boil in order to bring out a lot of classic pumpkin flavor.

Step 7: Boil for 60 minutes

It smells worse than it looks, if that's any consolation.

Not much left to say here. Stir constantly and watch for boil-overs. That's when you get a mass of gross foam that cascades onto your stovetop. Luckily, Dylan and I remained vigilant and avoided such calamities. Some people recommend that you place a few pennies at the bottom of the pot to stave off boil-overs, but being watchful can also do the trick.

Step 8: Add finishing hops and more pumpkin

Easy Libby, as we affectionately called her.

The longer you boil something in a liquid, the more of its taste will transfer into the liquid. However, volatile chemicals, like wonderful odor molecules, will escape and fly away. Aromatic hops ("finishing hops") and stimulating spices should be added at the end of the boil so that your beer will have a great nose.

Dylan and I threw in another can of pumpkin pie mix at t-5 minutes. Then, with two minutes left, we added some pumpkin spices and Cascade hops. Yummy!

Step 9: Cool the wort

Making chilly beer.

Because bacteria grows best around 90-140 degrees F while yeast enjoys a balmy 80 degrees F, you need to drop the temperature of the wort down to 80 degrees or below as quickly as possible. This step is critical: the longer it takes the wort to cool, the greater the likelihood is for your beer to harbor funky bacterial flavors.

You'll also want to cool the wort down as fast as possible because it's a huge open target for airborne contaminants that will later activate and mess up your recipe. You can't seal everything up and store it away until it reaches a temperature amenable to your finicky yeast, so immediately pitching your yeast and sealing your fermenter is out of the question.

Finally, you'll drop the temp because the wort can oxidize more easily at higher temperatures. Oxidation creates bad tastes.

You see, there are so many ways to mess up your beer at this stage! It is imperative that you work to cool the wort, as expeditiously as humanly possible, even if drastic measures are needed (see below). For the infelicitous duo, Chip and Dylan, Step 9 took freaking forever.

Step 9b: No, seriously, dude, cool the damn wort.
It needs to be at 80, and the thermometer still says 86.

It's like R2D2 at a day spa.

Our recalcitrant wort needed some intervention, so we transferred it from a once-icy-now-toasty bath in the sink to a real bath. Chip resorted to wrapping a wet towel around the top half of the bucket while splashing it with water (as if it were a beached Shamu), leveraging the power of convection currents and water's heat capacity to accelerate the cooling process.

Still, it took far too long, and this gave us much anxiety (cleverly masked in the picture above).

Step 10: Transfer to primary fermentation vessel, pitch yeast, and store away from light and heat

You've got an infestation of beer in your basement.

This could have been broken down into additional steps, necessitating extra pictures. I'm fed up with laying it all out for you visually, so I'll limn this last step:

Transfer | With beer, you can have multiple vessels for fermentation. Most of the yeast's business gets done in the primary fermenter, so you put the wort in there first, add additional water to bring it to the correct gravity (sugar concentration) for fermentation, and toss in (pitch) a bunch of yeast. Then seal it up and sit back while the magic happens. An airlock prevents nasties from getting into the container while allowing carbon dioxide (a byproduct of fermentation) to come out.

Currently, our nascent beer is in the primary fermenter. You'll notice that the wort was already in the primary fermentation vessel during the cooling phase (see Step 10), which is usually a no-no, but not a big deal. Anyway, we got antsy.

After a week or so, we will transfer the fermented wort to a secondary fermenter, leaving behind the "gunk" from the boil and primary fermentation (dead yeast, bits of hops, proteins from grains and pumpkin, etc.). This clears the beer up.

Finally, we'll bottle condition for two weeks, puting the beer in bottles with some extra sugar for the yeast to munch on. That way, they can kick out some carbon dioxide gas to make the beer fizzy and delicious.

Note that this whole process takes about a month. Good things come to those who (brew and) wait.

Pitch | Again, pitching yeast just means adding yeast to wort so that the yeast can start their work of converting that nasty-looking soup into Ninkasi's nectar. There are different regimens for pitching yeast depending on the beer's style and your OCD level. We just pitched the yeast all at once when the temperature got around 80 degrees. That usually works fine for ales.

Hide | You store beer away from light to keep sulfur from getting knocked off one molecule and binding to another. This sulfur shuffle yields a skunky taste (literally, the chemical formula of the funky scent is similar to that of a component of skunk spray...ewwww!).

Phew, that whole process was almost more than one man could handle. Or two. We learned a great deal about the brewing process: the dos, the don'ts, the forget-me-nots. Even without assurance that our ale will be fit for human consumption, the whole affair was very rewarding. We look forward to honing our craft and experimenting a little. I hope you enjoyed this post, and if you're interested in brewing your own beer, buy a book (I love this one), and give it a shot! It's easy as 1-2-3...11!


  1. This is what your parents send you to Princeton for?

  2. How dare you criticize an artistic process like making beer! Would you criticize a friend who became a published author? I think not.

  3. This is so funny. "Dylan is already sterile so we saved some time there." I miss youuuu.

  4. I freaking love you guys. NOM NOM NOM

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  6. (spelled the first word wrong. Let's try this again). You're kidding me... I'm brewing up a pumpkin ale right now (and using the boiling time to read friends' g-chat statuses). Have you tried yours yet? How did it taste?