To all-grain brewing! This has been a goal of mine ever since the hubby and I have undertaken the most amazing hobby ever. But how to begin? It is quite a daunting task, considering that the majority of my experience involved simply opening up a jar and pouring its contents into hot water. While the hubby is adept at reading a book and teaching himself how to do things, I need the structure of a class. And, just my luck, Paul from ChitownOnTap (one of my favorite beer blogs) has teamed up with Dabble and local breweries to provide guidance on home brewing.
First, let me give a huge shout out to Paul. He was approachable, funny, and clearly knew his stuff, although he came right out and told us he was not an expert and learned new things about brewing all the time. As someone who constantly bemoans how I will never, ever, learn enough about the brewing process to be any good, this was reassuring. This was a hands-on class and everyone had a chance to mill grain, stir the mash, or transfer water.
The hubby and I arrived at Finch’s Beer Co., the locale for the class, at 11am sharp and were immediately offered a Golden Wing Blonde Ale from Finch’s tap line. Yes, please! The other students and I, frosty beer in hand, gathered around the home brew set up and Paul began going over the all-grain brewing process. He explained that we would be making a Lemon Pepper Saison brewed with lemongrass, pink peppercorns, Szechwan peppercorns, ginger, and coriander. This definitely sounded more complicated than anything I had made before. These seasonings are added at the very end of the boil, however, so they were not a part of the all-grain mash. Paul passed the seasonings around to let us experience their aroma and flavor; I can’t wait to taste the nuances each imparts on this beer!
Paul explained that we would be doing a step mash, a temperature-controlled method that gives the beer more stability and complexity in the mouthfeel. For more information on this method, check out The Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian. While Paul was explaining about the mash, we all got a chance to mill the grain. This was quite difficult for me; I apparently do not have as much upper arm strength as I thought! I learned that for the best outcome, you should mill the grain as close to brew time as possible in order to get the maximum use out of the color and flavor. Also, the size of the milled malt has a huge impact, as this could lead to a stuck sparge (which is exactly what happened to us!)
To say the mash went smoothly would be a lie. There were temperature issues during the step mash and the grains got clogged during the sparge a few times. However, this provided invaluable information for the hubby’s and my own upcoming all-grain adventures. Paul showed us a way to use a siphon and a plastic tube to unclog the spigot of the mash tun during a stuck sparge, as well as how to manipulate the temperature during the step mash to obtain optimal temperatures. He also taught us the value of patience during the mash, as the temperature may not be consistent throughout and it is beneficial to wait and make sure that you actually do need to make modifications. These incidents have eased my fear about my first all-grain brew; I know problems are inevitable but that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. Case in point, when the somewhat problematic mash was over, our gravity reading indicated the Saison was right where we wanted it to be. Go us!
During some of the down times, we got a thorough tour of the brewery. The hubby and I had gone to the Finch’s Grand Opening Party and the brewery has undergone a few changes since we were here last. About four more fermentors have been added and the canning line is getting ready for its maiden voyage. It is great to see that this newcomer is expanding so quickly!
These lag times were also a great opportunity to try Finch’s other brews, including Cut Throat Pale Ale and Sapsucker California Rye ale. This was the first time I had the Sapsucker and I enjoyed it immensely. It is golden brown in color with a malty nose and dry with a slight malt flavor. Prior to tasting the beer, however, I had just sampled one of the peppercorns being used in our Saison so I may have had some flavor interference. Another exciting beer to look forward to from Finch’s is Dirty Bird, a Doppelbock, and its barrel-aged version, Dirtier Bird, which is aged in Koval Whiskey barrels. The barrels had just been filled on July 11th and should age for three months or so. I hope the hubby and I can acquire tickets to the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer so I can try this one!
Due to some of the issues we had during the mash, the class ran over the 1:30pm finish time and we did not get to participate in the boil. Overall, this class was definitely worth way more than the $20 fee. Other perks? Students get a discount at Northern Brewer, perfect for purchasing your all-grain starter kit. We also are cordially invited to go back to Finch’s in late August or early September for a tasting party. This will include the two extract brewing classes and our class so we can taste the beer of our labors. Can’t wait to try them all! If you are interested in participating in similar classes, check out dabble.com and/or ChitownOnTap. There are a few classes coming up, this time located at New Chicago Brewing Co. Check ChitownOnTap or Dabble for all dates and times.