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Crafting a Beer: Execution – Saint Remo Gruit Ale (2013)

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After carefully constructing our gruit recipe and purchasing the ingredients, it was finally time to brew. Bearing copious amounts of citrus and herbs, we arrived at Franks bright and early to get started brewing on his ten gallon brewing set up. Though this was not our first time brewing, it was the first time we had a hand in writing the recipe, so the stakes seemed a bit higher and we hoped the end result would be even more rewarding.

Despite most people enjoying a cold brew every once in awhile (or a bit more often, for some), the brewing process is something of an illusive mystery for most casual beer enthusiasts. Vorlauf, sparge and mash-tun are words that sound foreign and rarely come up while relaxing with your favorite beer, but they are part of the every day vocabulary of brewers. As two relative novices to home brewing, we are still learning most of the terminology, technique and tips as well. Here is how our Saint Remo gruit brew day progressed:

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Our brew day began at 9 am sharp and though there was a bit of downtime throughout the process, we did not wrap things up until around 3 pm. A long day to be sure but we were all willing to put the time in. We had high hopes for this recipe and a little blind faith in our ability to execute it.

Before we dove into the “cooking”, we had to make sure everything was completely clean and sanitized. This is perhaps the most important part of brewing, as the tiniest bit of contamination can ruin an entire batch of beer. Microbes, bacteria and other creepy-micro-crawlies can make a beer taste lactic (think unpleasant sourness), add DMS (almost like sweet canned corn) or cause a beer to taste like butter (too much diacetyl). Again, this is something we did not picture when visions of bathtub whiskey and back alley moonshiners danced in our heads. Really, the brewing process was similar to cooking a gourmet meal, without the instant gratification of sitting down to eat said meal afterward. Beer needs to go through a fermentation process so the finished product will not be ready for a few weeks (bummer). With everything clean we popped on some music and headed on to the next step.

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Following cleaning our “kitchen” brew area (aka Franks back patio), it was time for a bit of prep work. In a large pot we set about heating some water, known as strike water for the purpose of brewing. We then milled the malt and grain (malt literally refers to malted or dried, germinated grains) which just means we broke it down into smaller pieces using a mill powered by a hand drill. This process turned the malt and grain (now grist) into an almost cornmeal like consistency. Breaking the malt and grain down allows it to absorb the water it will eventually be mixed with in order for said water to extract sugars from the grist. These sugars are going to be the building blocks from which our ale will eventually be constructed (thanks sugars).

A quick point here, our Saint Remo gruit is an ale fermented with ale yeast (a top-fermenting variety) and not having any hops added to it. Hops are the female flowers of the Humulus lupulus which were introduced to ale around 1079 in Germany although the had been recorded as being cultivated in that counties Hallertau region from around the year 736. Despite these facts hops did not truly catch on until the 13th century. The term beer was originally created to refer to ales that had hops added to them as both a bittering agent and preservative. Ale and beer were originally distinct terms but today they are often used as synonyms. See ale did not always have hops added to it but beer and hops have been bosom buddies from the start. Since Saint Remo contains no hops it truly is an Olde school ale. Here endeth the lesson, now back to the brew day.

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We next, added the grist and a portion of the spruce tips to a huge pot along with the strike water. This mixture, our mash, was cooked for around an hour. This process is called “mashing in” and it allows the enzymes in the malt to break down the starch in the grain into sugars, typically maltose to create a sweet liquid called wort. Through this we are able to give our friend Saccharomyces cerevisiae (brewers yeast) the food it needs to produce the byproducts alcohol and carbon dioxide (yes beer and ales fans we love yeast poop). The end result is something that looks similar to oatmeal, but all you are interested in the long run here is the liquid wort which will be drawn off during the sparge. At this point we brought some water for the eventual sparge up to temprature.

Before moving onto sparging however, we needed to clear the wort. Frank’s brewing set up used a ten minute recirculating mash which moved the wort from the bottom of the mash tun back through the mash. This allowed the grain husks to settle and form a natural filter through which the wort would be drawn. Normally this “husk filter” is achieved by vorlaufing or drawing off some wort and pouring it, gently, back onto the top of the mash thus creating the filter we are after. Using this ten minute recirculating mash however allowed for a shorter vorlauf process and clearer wort in the end. Now that we had our grain bed/filter established to clarify our wort it was time to sparge. There are a few different methods of sparging but in our case we went with what is known as “batch sparging” as Frank feels it is quicker and more efficient method. For this process we took the heated sparge water and ran it through the grain and finally into the boil kettle. In the mash tun, you are left with a quasi oatmeal-like mixture that can actually be used for mulch, to bake bread, grow mushrooms, make dog biscuits or in a myriad of other uses. Take a look at some options here on Beer Activist. We will recommend not eating it right out of the pot, as it tastes more like cardboard than something Quaker Oats would serve up. If you had the correct conversion rate all of the sugars will have been drawn from the grain leaving it quite bland.

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Once you have your liquid (wort) in the boil kettle, this is when it’s time to get creative with your brewing. The wort is once again heated, this time to a boil. This is when we added in our herbs and citrus (that is what you see in that “hop sack“, though ours did not actually contain any hops). We did about a 75 minute boil, adding various quantities of spruce, sage, rosemary and lemon/lime zest throughout. The ingredients we put in initially were for bitterness, those in the middle were for flavor and aromatics are added in the final stage. By adding our bittering and flavoring agents in this way, we are able to control the flavor profile of our finished ale.

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Lastly, we cooled this mixture using a plate chiller and a march pump. When the liquid was cooled we put it into a large 15 gallon plastic tub to ferment and hopefully turn into an ale and not a sour or infected mess. When the correct temperature was achieved the yeast was pitched and the miracle of fermentation was initiated. Frank had made a yeast starter a couple days prior, which allowed generations of yeast to form in a beaker. Once added to our liquid, the job of the yeast is to eat the sugar present, therefore producing our ale (along with carbon dioxide). Before putting it into storage, we did steal a sip or two. Though very sweet, the liquid had a nice flavor which left us hopeful for the end result. All that was left to do was sit and wait for the yeast to do it’s work during this primary fermentation. At this stage this Saint Remo gruit ale was progressing very nicely and we were learning a lot about the brewing process. Our next steps would be racking (moving the beer into another vessel and off of the yeast cake to continue fermenting), kegging (again racking the beer but this time into a keg and adding CO2) and of course more tasting (drinking the fruits of your labor). We are eager to share these steps and more with you as we march ever closer to unveiling Saint Remo gruit ale on the world at this weekends Spring Craft Beer Festival (click for info and tickets). We hope to see you all there!

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Written by A+K

March 6th, 2013 at 4:35 am

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