Don’t boil your grains!

Homebrewing has come a long way since I started in 1987. The ingredients are better (especially the yeasts!), the equipment is better, and the instructions are better. A recent discovery in my mom’s home reminded me of this.

My mother found an old recipe that belonged to my father. I don’t think my father ever brewed beer, and I’m not sure why he had this, but … there it was in his recipe box. It was called “Dr. Brew’s Legendary Number 65.” The recipe included 1/2 cup of Black Patent malt, and the instructions said to boil them for the last 15 minutes.


That’s not a good idea. But looking at that recipe explains something I’ve wondered about for a long time.

The very first batch of beer I brewed was a strong stout. That was a dumb thing to start with, but … what did I know?

I started with a recipe for a stout from an old book I had, then I took all the components that were going to make it dark and I jacked them up, then added some extra black patent malt on top of that.

That could have worked, but the instructions were probably like “legendary #65” above, and probably had me boil the grains.

I was so excited about my first batch of beer that I barely gave it time to condition in the bottle before I tried one.

It was awful. Astringent. Harsh. Just plain nasty. It was everything bad that people who don’t like dark beers say about dark beers. But I like dark beers!

I kept trying it, hoping it would get better with age, but after a couple months of faithfully trying a bottle every few days, I gave up, pushed it into the back of the storage area under my stairs and moved on to something else.

I brewed several successful beers after that, then about a year later I found that old case of stout, gathering dust and cobwebs. I figured I just needed to pour it out and reuse the bottles, but I had to try one first.

It was fantastic. It was everything I had wanted in a stout. Thick, rich, flavorful. Creamy head. Notes of coffee. I loved it. Unfortunately, by that time there was only about a half a case left.

Anyway, now I’m pretty sure I know what went wrong with that first batch. I probably boiled the black patent malt, and it took all that time for the nasty flavors to age out.

Steep your grains, but don’t boil them. In fact, you should probably remove them from your kettle before you get to 170F.

Picking the right beer bottles

Even if you keg your beer, from time to time you’re going to want to bottle some of it. There are a few things you want to look for when selecting your bottles.

Use brown bottles — Light can damage your beer, so don’t use green or clear bottles. Stick with brown.

Don’t use twist-offs — Your caps won’t fit properly. Stick with pry-off tops.

Use returnables, if you can get them — I imagine this varies from state to state, but if you can get returnable bottles, use them. They’re thicker and stronger than regular bottles.


Stick with bottles of the same general size and shape — It helps when you’re stacking cases. Also, note the distance between the lip of the bottle and that little indentation about a half inch down. (I’ve marked in on the photo to the right.)

Stick with bottles that have about the same distance there. On some bottles that distance is really short and the caps don’t go on quite as well.

Use glass — Modern plastics are pretty good, so you shouldn’t get off flavors from good quality plastic bottles, but I know some pretty smart people who say you should avoid eating food out of plastic whenever possible.

The exception here is if you have trouble with your carbonation. If you think your beer might be overcarbonated, by all means use plastic. Bottle bombs with glass are not a joking matter.

Note how well labels come off — Different brands of beer use different methods of securing the label to the bottle. Some of them come off easily after soaking the bottle in water, while some you need a sand blaster to remove.

I don’t particularly care if my homebrew has some old label on it, but … it’s still nice to have a clear bottle.

Avoid bottles with labels around the neck — Some bottles have a label at the top. This gets in your way when you’re filling, because you can’t see how much beer you’ve put in the bottle.

If you’d like more tips about homebrewing, please see my Beginner’s Guide to Home Brewing.

Proper style usage vs. the style Nazis

If somebody hands you a Pale Ale, you have certain expectations about what you’re getting. If it’s the color of a porter, you’re going to have that “this isn’t what I ordered” feeling.

Likewise, if you’re in a bar where they have English Ales on tap, you have a reasonable expectation that the ESB is stronger than the special, which is stronger than the bitter.

Well and good. That’s the right use of styles. Words should mean things.

Some folk seem to take this proper need for defining a style a little too far. In my opinion, there’s usually not a sharp line between one style and the next. There’s some overlap where, for example, a porter could be very like a stout, or it’s a matter of a coin toss whether an ale is a brown ale or a mild.

That is, styles have fuzzy edges — a fact that is recognized in the BJCP style guidelines.

Many styles are quite broad and can encompass multiple stylistically accurate variants.

A few times I’ve run into people who are a little too particular about style definitions. It’s as if they feel the need to show off their beer knowledge and be persnickety about minor things. I find it tiresome.

I like beers to be faithful to their styles (or to come up with a new style, if that’s necessary), but I don’t like to be too precise about it.

Making whiskey at home, legally

Distillation is illegal, because the stinking revenuers want their tax money. But is there a way for crafty people to make their own whiskey without running afoul of the law? Read on, my friend.

All liquors come out of the distillation process clear and most liquors get their color and flavor from the aging process. That got me thinking. If I can’t distill the alcohol (because Governor Tarkin says I can’t), I can still age it. That’s perfectly legal.

Inventive, imaginative, innovative people like homebrewers should be able to get around this. So here’s my idea, and my challenge to other homebrewers.

The idea is to create new and interesting kinds of liquor by focusing on the aging part of the equation. That is, buy some grain alcohol, dillute it as necessary, and mix it with various things to create a new flavor of liquor. (Or age it and then dillute it. I’m not sure yet which is the right approach.)

I’ve tried it, and my first batch turned out pretty well.

The People’s Republic of Maryland recently outlawed the sale of grain alcohol, but it’s still possible to buy very strong neutral spirits. I bought some Everclear that was 151 proof, which worked just fine for my purposes.

For some reason I had the mistaken notion that bourbon is supposed to be aged in charred oak barrels that had been used to age burgundy. That’s not so. Bourbon has to be aged in new charred oak barrels. But proceeding according to my misperception, here’s what I did.

I bought some oak chips from Maryland Homebrew and soaked them in red wine for a week. (I used Merlot because that’s what I had.) Then I took the oak chips out to my mini charcoal grill and smoked / charred them on a small wood fire. Then I mixed my 151 Everclear with enough water to get it close to 80 proof and soaked that on my charred wood chips for a couple weeks.

(I’m not giving you precise figures because I want you to experiment, and I’m not confident my recipe is the best place to start.)

What I ended up with was a very smoky amber-colored drink that could pass for scotch or bourbon. In fact, I think it’s quite good. I’m having a small glass right now.

I need to play with the recipe a bit. I think it’s a touch too smoky, and I want to try it again with oak chips that were simply charred and not soaked in wine. But this idea creates a whole new area of exploration and experimentation for me.

Here’s the best thing about it, in my opinion.

When real distilleries age whiskey or bourbon, they store it in oak barrels and rely on a very slow process by which the alcohol soaks into and out of the barrel because of changes in atmospheric pressure and whatnot. It’s a painfully slow process that can take years.

Since I’m soaking the alcohol in wood chips, it all happens a lot faster. No, it’s not precisely the same as the process that “real” whiskeys go through, but … I’m not trying to duplicate Maker’s Mark. I’m trying to invent my own thing, and I’m too old to wait three years for each batch.

My method — from start to finish — takes a few weeks. And it will take even less time when I skip the soaking in wine part. I think that’s pretty darned cool.

Controlling the actual temperature of your beer

The air temperature in your kegerator or lagering fridge doesn’t always track with the temperature of your beer, so a thermostat that’s measuring air temperature isn’t controlling the right thing. To get a consistent temperature you need to measure the temperature of the liquid.

I tend to be more of a “relax, don’t worry” kind of a brewer. My process makes very good beer, and that’s good enough for me. But that means that one batch of my California Common is not always the same as the next batch. They’re both good, but they’re not consistent. I’m okay with that — at least for now — but if I wanted to fix it, one of the main ways to get more consistency with your beer is to control your temperature better, especially during fermentation.

Recently I heard about the Sure Temp Thermometer and I was curious about it. I asked Chris at Maryland Homebrew about this and she said “we have been telling customers to do just this with empty white labs vials. They drill a hole in the lid and stick their thermostat controller into it.”

There’s the DIY solution if you love to tinker, or if you want to buy one pre-made, go here, or read more about it on this page — Sure Temp Thermometer Measures Product Temperature.

If you want to learn more about the importance of temperature control, here’s a good page. Fermentation Temperature Control. It says “Fermentation temperature control is the single most important thing you can do that will make the most dramatic improvements in your beer.”

Okay, maybe. Don’t people say that about sanitation?