October 29, 2008

The Great Pumpkin

Now that we've successfully birthed a batch o' brew, it would be tempting to just sit back, relax and have a homebrew. But the 2JB ethic requires us to forge ahead, and we're prepping for the second brew this weekend.

Nahum and I agreed that we wanted to up our game for our sophomore effort, but also test our ability to duplicate our initial success. So we decided to brew another batch of amber ale, but with a seasonal twist: Pumpkin Ale!

The box of ale ingredients arrived today (we've found recipes online that suggest ways to add the pumpkin & autumnal spices as you're brewing), and Nahum called with a report (no unboxing was necessary this time). Interestingly, we ordered the exact same thing from the exact same place...but not all of the included ingredients were exactly the same. Specifically, we got a Windsor brewing yeast which, according to the folks at danstar.com, should yield a slightly heavier, more complex ale than Batch Alef. Throw in some cinnamon, nutmeg and carmelized pumpkin, and we're in for a whole 'nother brewing adventure...

P.S. - I neglected to share this little nugget of homebrew goodness. Nahum's friend Jay, who consulted via phone from Florida as we were hatching our initial 2JB plans, wished us well with Batch Alef by whipping up this totally fun graphic:

October 28, 2008

Batch Alef

Was it really only a month since we'd hatched the plan to brew beer in our NJ suburb? Really just 3 weeks or so since we'd turned that first box of ingredients into Two Jews Brew? Could it really, actually be time to drink the stuff?

Yes, really. It was time.

Last Saturday afternoon, we invited a couple dozen local 2JB enthusiasts over for a sort of Semitic Beer Cotillion: the coming-out party for Batch Alef.

Nahum brought over the box of bottles from the basement fermenting lab, and soon most of the middle shelf of the fridge was filled with brown glass bottles (none of which, perhaps miraculously, had exploded during the last part of the process). Between our two families and our invited guests, there was a great spread of sweet & salty snacks.

Everything was ready. All that was left was the drinking.

Just before everyone arrived, Nahum and I popped a cap and split a bottle into two frosted beer glasses. We looked (it looked good), we sniffed (it smelled just right), we clinked our glasses (l'chaim!) and gave it a try.

And wouldn't you know it - the beer was good. Really good. It tasted just like a glass of amber ale was supposed to taste. Smooth, a little hoppy, a little crisp, and totally tasty. If I'd given a bartender a fiver and gotten this in return, I would have been perfectly happy.

Though in this case, we weren't perfectly happy...Nahum and I were ecstatic. We'd made beer! Delicious beer! Let the party begin!

For the next three hours, people came and went and we proudly poured our creation. I'm pretty sure my mug was never entirely empty, and each sip just felt right. Everyone who had a glass of 2JB seemed pleased and impressed (and maybe just a little surprised - but who could blame anyone for that?). The food was delicious, more bottles were popped open, and we had just about as much fun as two brewin' Jews could have asked.

Of course, the conversation eventually turned to the most crucial question of all: the next batch. Not content to rest on our laurels, this coming weekend we're going to do our darndest to skip the sophomore slump, mix up 5 gallons of seasonally correct pumpkin ale and get the whole thing going again.

October 24, 2008


The next step in the 2JB tale is coming very soon...but in the meantime, a story on CNN.com caught my eye. The question, "What would Jesus brew?" might be the exact antithesis of the Two Jews Brew credo.

Which reminds me: we really need a credo (or at least a good tag line). Any suggestions?

October 18, 2008

A Beer is Born

Tom Petty wasn't kidding: the waiting is the hardest part. After bottling our batch of brew last week, Nahum and I had agreed to give it 2 weeks to do the carbonation thing. But within a day or so...it suddenly seemed like what we really should do is try 1 bottle after just 1 week. That way, we'd have another benchmark between what we'd tasted directly from the fermentation bucket and what we'd have at the end.

Y'know, for the science of it.

And so it came to pass that this Saturday afternoon, we took a single bottle out of the Beer Room (aka, a small space in Nahum's basement) that had been sitting at a steady 65 degrees for a week. And we opened it. And we drank it.

And it was good. Really good.

As soon as the cap came off, we knew something good had happened in 7 days: after creating the beer and giving it dominion over the hops and barley, it had gone into a restful state of reasonable carbonation. You could see the bubbles in the bottle, and the pour yielded a very healthy looking head atop a deep amber color.

It was beer! It looked like beer, smelled like beer, tasted like beer, the whole megilla. Sure, it wasn't quite done (it could use a bit more carbonation, and maybe sweeten just a tinge), but what we quaffed was something I would in no way be ashamed to serve to another human being.

Once we got over our giddy satisfaction, the two brewing Jews tried to do a little critical assessment. Basically, it's now a bit like a British bitter: warm, lightly carbonated and a little cloudy. There's a bit of a crisp feel when drinking, and a nice hoppy aftertaste that doesn't linger long.

All in all, I don't think we could be happier. We're letting the remaining 41 bottles sit for 1 more week, and then it's time to chill 'em and gather round for the official unveiling of Batch Alef from 2JB!

October 12, 2008

42 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

On Saturday, we saw the sign (and it opened up our eyes): The hydrometer returned a steady reading of 1.014, which is both a) the same reading from the day before, meaning the fermentation had stopped; and b) within the final target range for this batch o' brew.

It was bottling time!

Not only was this exciting because it meant the 2JB project was rolling apace, but it also meant we got to use 2 more pieces of equipment from our brewing kit: the bottling wand and the capper.

The wand was, true to its name, a little piece of magic. It attaches to the end of the siphon hose, adding a slim, solid tube that can go into the to-be-filled bottle. But the magic part was the little plastic dohickey on the end (that's the technical term, I believe) that only lets the beer flow through while its pressing down on the bottom of the bottle; when you lift it up, the flow cuts off immediately. This means the flow doesn't start until the wand is all the way in (which cuts down the risk of over-aerating during the bottling), and it allows for a perfect volume of beer in the bottle. Brilliant.

Once we sanitized our bottling equipment and 2 dozen bottles & caps, we dissolved 5 oz. of priming sugar into 2 cups of water and boiled for 5 minutes. That went into the sanitized "bottling bucket," followed by the siphoning of close to the full 5 gallons of wort from bucket #1 to bucket #2. (The sugar solution will be key in adding carbonation to the finished product.)

It's at this point that I want to mention one good thing and one bad thing.

The bad thing first: When we siphoned out the wort bucket, we got a peek at the residue that had formed at the bottom over the course of a week. Put simply: it was deeply, profoundly foul. Nahum was digging the concentrated hops aroma that came out of this sludge, but unless you closed your eyes and cleansed your brain, it was hard to get past just how disgusting the sedimentary byproduct is. (Note: the only "bad" here is the look; the sludge is supposed to be there.)

Now the good thing: Nahum and I tasted the fermented wort and...it was really, really good! Granted, it tasted like warm, flat beer...but that's a pretty accurate description of where we were in the process: pre-carbonated, pre-chilled beer. It's only subtly different from the post-carbonated, post-chilled beer you've got sitting around the morning after a party, but that's nonetheless beer, right? The alcohol and mouth-feel are still coming together, but the flavor is there.

But I digress. Working in a two-man assembly line, Nahum siphoned from the bottling bucket into the bottles, and I used the bright-red capper to seal each one shut. In the end we filled 42 bottles, which are now sitting in a 66-degree room.

In just 15 days (long, long days, no doubt), the carbonation and other final bits of brewing magic should be complete, and we'll have some honest-to-goodness Two Jews Brew to sample!

October 10, 2008

A Delicate Balance

When we first called Nahum's friend for homebrew advice, one of the (many) good tips he gave us was a book title: The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian. The title pretty much sums up what you get in its 400+ pages.

While the Papazian book goes into a lot of details as far as procedures, recipes and other homebrew ephemera, it's key point comes up again & again: "Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew." Anytime a potential problem or tricky bit of craft come up, Papazian doles out that sage advice.

Nahum and I did our best to take this to heart, but it's not always easy for the first-time brewer. On Monday, I got the following e-mail from Nahum: "
I am violating the cardinal rule. I am worrying. In the new room I am concerned it is too cold. Shelf thermometer reads 65. Bucket temp reads 70 (I moved it this morning because it read 73). Now I am worried it is bubbling too slowly," adding, "I am sick and need help."

I wasn't sure how worried to be about this, so I decided to relax and not worry (and I drank a beer at home). Nahum soon followed suit by shifting his focus to something that was actually very productive, namely monitoring the specific gravity readings.

Now, I thought you just took a reading at the beginning and another at the end. And at first I worried that this was going to just be an added worry-maker, but it turned out to be yet another good sign. The 10.8.08 reading revealed that the brew was up to 2.9% alcohol by volume (which is well on the way to the target of three-point-something) and even better was his note that, "it is already really tasty!" Nahum's wife even joined in:

All good signs. We're going to take another reading tonight (and I'll get my first taste of the not-quite-yet-ale), followed by bottling this weekend.

October 6, 2008

Bottled Up

Just like the "comprehensive" CD box set that is missing some key tracks, our "complete" homebrew starter kit was missing one crucial element: bottles.

Now, bottling is a bigger deal in homebrewing than you might suppose. Because we don't have at our disposal a full brewery set-up (or at least not yet...), part of the process actually happens in the bottle: the carbonation.

Which means you can't have just any old bottle for your beer. For instance, it can't have a screw top, since we've got to lock these suckers down tight. And they need to be very clean - we'll be sterilizing the bottles before pouring in the brew, but I think it helps if they're not crudded up with lime rinds, cigarette butts and such.

So we decided to order some bottles. Nahum went to order from the same outfit that sold us the kit...but he soon discovered that a brew-pub in the next town over would sell us brew-quality bottles. Cheaper. And no waiting. I think we both hate waiting.

On Sunday I got in the car, headed to the Gaslight, and about 15 minutes and $23.35 later, I had two cases of pristine 12 oz. brown-glass bottles in my possession. Nahum says the Ale Pail is bubbling (though he's a little nervous about the temperature in his basement), so by Sunday we should be ready to bottle.

October 5, 2008

The First Brew

At 12:28pm on Saturday, October 4, 2008, Nahum and I lit the fire under our inaugural pot of homebrew. I know the exact time because it's a specific part of my job in the process: to take notes, keep track and document the process (see: the page you're reading right now).

And I now have a page of notes regarding our 1st crack at making beer. Prepping the 5 gallons of American Amber Ale took almost exactly 3 1/2 hours, a very fine way to pass a Saturday afternoon. Nahum is a veteran of endeavors like this, having already made his own cheese, his own (kosher) sausage, his own apple butter...you get the idea. The man already had most of the right equipment and all of the right attitude for home brewing - at each stage, as we followed the step-by-step instructions included in our American Amber kit, Nahum took a moment to take in the smells of the ingredients and notice the changes in color, consistency, etc.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We started by sanitizing our equipment, putting 8 oz. of crushed crystal 60L malt into a muslin sock, and heating it in the pot, kind of like a giant tea bag that steeps beer (if only!). Then 2lb of dry malt went into the pot as we kept it at a steady boil for 55 minutes, after which 1 oz. of Willamette Bittering Hops went into the mix. [UPDATE: As Nahum pointed out, " Just prior to the 2lbs of dry malt, we poured 3.3 lbs of Munton's amber malt syrup."]

By this point, the pot was giving off a very strong, and very specific, smell: malty, yes, but also noticeably earthy...kind of like cereal covered in moss (especially after another 8 oz. of finishing hops went in). We had no real way of knowing if this was the smell it was supposed to have, but it did seem to be a sort of logical alchemical combination of the individual ingredients' scents. So far so good, then.

After the boil, we had to get the temperature of the wort (the technical term for the liquid at this stage) from 220 degrees to 70 degrees as fast as possible. Nahum devised an ice bath in the sink, and we plunged the pot while keeping the liquid in motion to spread out the temperature. And in just 16 minutes...we'd done it! Comfortably cool wort.

Now, we technically won't have any beer to drink for another couple of weeks...but you didn't think we'd actually wait that long, right? Perish the thought. Nahum and I sampled the lukewarm wort, and it tasted like...well, it didn't taste like beer yet. But it was certainly a beer-related flavor, bitter and still very earthy.

Next came the most science-ish part of the process: taking a specific-gravity reading. Now, my relationship with science is tense, at best; when it comes to explaining the reasons behind how the beer works, I'm more on the Homer Simpson tip: "Fire made it good." But I soldiered on, dropping the hydrometer into the bucket (which we'd filled with more science-related activity involving a long-hosed siphon) and taking the reading.

And wouldn't you know it: 1.040. Which, according to the recipe, is right about where it should be. As we added the yeast and sealed up the bucket to let it ferment for a week, we both noted that somewhat to our mutual surprise, everything had gone as it should. Each step took about as long as the recipe and books and websites said it should, and each result seemed to be as it was supposed to be.

As Gov. Palin might put it: "Doggone it, we might be able to give Joe Six-Pack some beer here, folks." And we just might, after the bucket ferments for a week, and we head back to the Two Jews Lab for the next step(s).

October 4, 2008

Unboxing Day

Two boxes arrived: one large one with the "starter kit" of equipment for the novice homebrewer; the other with the pre-measured ingredients for brewing 5 gallons(!) of amber ale.

We set to unboxing the stuff with the collective force of two kids on all eight nights of Hanukkah. Starting with the big box (of course), the first kick was seeing that the two plastic fermentation buckets were labeled "Ale Pail," in a kind of quasi-biergarten font. And once we felt the heft and solidity of the glass carboy (a name I still need to trace the root of), the decision to spend the extra dosh for glass instead of plastic seemed right on the nose.

Nahum seemed especially fascinated by the mechanics of it all. He reached for the bottle-capper and flexed its handles until it was clear how it did its thing. And once we had all of the equipment laid out, he went step-by-step through the instructions, figuring out how each item in front of us participated in making the magic happen.

The box of ingredients was slightly more frustrating: because we weren't getting to the brewing immediately (curse those day jobs!), it seemed wrong to open the vaccum-sealed bags of hops and malts and such. But that meant that the sensual pleasures - inhaling the aromas of the hops, feeling the grit of the raw ingredients as they fell through our fingers - had to be put off. No small loss.

Now we're on to the next, and crucial step: the inagural brew. Some marital negotiations cleared out 3 hours this weekend, which means we're likely to have a drinkable (fingers crossed!) batch ready by Halloween. Seems kind of perfect timing, eh?