As a newcomer to home brewing, in reading posts on this board, one common thread becomes apparent - the newbie's "have I ruined my first brew" with the reply from the old-timers "RDWHAHB"! Just to set a few people's minds at rests about how badly one can do things and yet still end up with a drinkable product, let me tell you about my first brew...
I will preface this by saying that I am located in Oklahoma, where I specialise in equine reproduction. Both of these points - location and job - will become relevant in due course.
For Christmas last year, my wife bought me a home brew kit for producing a Harp clone - I know some might shudder at that so I should add that as a Brit. in America, my first choice is Bitter (my current project), but I think a cold Harp to be refreshing after a hot day's work, and it has been hot in OK this summer! And so to my first brewing error...
Having thrown the packaging away without making notes, I have absolutely no idea what the "recipe" was for my first brew! My wife had bought it at the "Beer At Home" store in Denver, CO, and although I called them hoping they would be able to give me with the list of clone ingredients that they had sold to my wife (who knows even less about brewing than I!), they (unhelpfully) told me that they didn't have time to go look it up... Lesson 1: Record all the details of your ingredients and brewing process!!
My next error was that I lost the instructions before brewing, after having read them a couple of times. I did manage to find notes on the timing for when to put in the hops, and figured that I would remember the rest without trouble. Yeah, right...
The day came when I finally decided to BREW. My sterility techniques were enhanced by my equine reproduction background - the processes we use in our business are advanced, and require a good degree of cleanliness, so that aspect of my preparation was (for the most part) OK. This probably did save me some grief.
I had not yet found HBT and was still working on the (erroneous) belief that I could remember all the instructions. I used bottled spring water to avoid any chlorination taste from tap water and proceeded to start warming 2.5 gal in a large pot on the stove. With that action comes the next major error and this will have everyone shuddering: I added the grains to the pot. Yup. Straight in the pot. With no intention of removing them at this stage. It just never crossed my mind that one "steeped" the grains and then removed them before boiling the wort! We used to boil barley for the horses to eat years ago, so I am only too aware of how grains can stick to the bottom of a pan, so I commenced stirring regularly to avoid sticking. In retrospect, this probably saved me - coupled with the fact that even after adding the malt, I still didn't let it boil too rapidly.
So, we're off to a flying start in a variety of wrong directions!!
After adding the malt and the hops at the correct time (about the only thing I did do right!!) and boiling (gently, while stirring!) for an hour or so, it was time to transfer from the pot to a bucket, straining the grains and everything else out as I did it. I then added another 2.5 gal of bottled spring water and called the volume "good". I had to call it good as (a) not having anticipated evaporation during the boiling process had no more bottled water; and (b) I hadn't bothered marking on the side of the bucket where the 5 gal line was...! In fact it was only a little more than 4 gallons.
Confident that adding the second bottle of cold water would cool down the wort adequately to where I could pitch the yeast, I cheerfully took the temperature with my thermocouple (that's a fancy high-tech thermometer that we use in our business). Imagine my surprise when I found it was still well over 110°!! Not to worry thinks I, we'll put it in a bath full of cold water and that will cool it down! 15 minutes later it was still well over 100°. I was now starting to worry, as one of the things that I had read was that one wanted to pitch the yeast and get everything sealed up ASAP to avoid contamination, and I understood contamination! Despite understanding contamination and sterility practices, my next move leaves even me (in retrospect) shaking my head. I retrieved the two trays of ice cubes we had in our freezer and threw the cubes in the brew. So much for understanding contamination and sterility practices...!! In fairness to myself, after I had dropped the first ice cube in, I thought "darn, that was stupid...", but figured that the damage was done at that point, so in for a penny, in for a pound, or rather two trays of ice cubes...
My wort dropped to the mid-80° mark. I waited some more, stirring, draining and adding more cold water the bath surrounding the bucket. You know the saying "a watched pot never boils"? Well, be aware that "a watched bucket never cools" either! After about 45 minutes, I suddenly got a brainwave! We freeze horse semen as part of the business, so we have all kinds of liquid nitrogen on hand! Liquid nitrogen is minus 320° F!! That should cool it!! I went and got a couple of cups of liquid nitrogen and dumped that in the brew. Ice formed on the top surface, along with the normal bubbling that one sees when adding liquid nitrogen to something warm, but alas! Upon taking the temperature a few minutes later, I found it had in fact only dropped about 3 more degrees. It seemed that patience was going to be the only solution, and I would have to ignore the time frame involved.
In due course (about 1.5 hours!!) I had reached about 70-75° and pitched my yeast. Well, at least I tried to pitch my yeast. As it was a liquid yeast and I had it out of the 'fridge for about 4 hours to warm up, I actually lost some of it when I opened the bottle as it was apparently under some degree of pressure and sprayed everywhere... Some of it I was lucky enough to actually get in the bucket, but some also went into the bathtub... After the yeast addition, I transferred the whole concoction into a glass carboy, added an airlock and sat back and waited.
That temperature of 70-75° was about as good as it got during the whole fermentation process, as it's been so darned hot here in OK that even with the air conditioning running most of the time, the temperature in the brew room (aka spare bathroom) probably never got much below 70° even at night. Another possible area that chaos could have been created!!
Amazingly, everything started bubbling about 24 hours later and continued to do so for a couple of weeks. Every day I would look closely at the carboy, expecting to see some growth of unpleasant bacteria and each day I was pleasantly surprised not to do so. I'm still a little amazed at that!
Around this time, I discovered HBT and have spent hours reading of other's exploits and the correct way of doing things!! Thank you SO MUCH for this valuable resource!! I have now invested in a variety of additional equipment, including a wort cooler!
The rest of the story actually is quite boring and normal. Followed my discovery of HBT and using guidance gleaned from it, instead of summarily bottling the brew at 2 weeks as I had originally intended, I invested in a hydrometer and confirmed that fermentation had ceased. Furthermore, I saw that leaving it in the fermenter a little longer was probably going to have a beneficial effect on clarity (which was likely quite important in view of the insults I had exposed it to during it's creation!!) and therefore let everything sit for a total of 4 weeks before bottling. Rather than adding bottling sugar to the bottles, as I had originally intended, I followed the consensus of advice here and added it pre-mixed to the bottling bucket - and having by now started to come to my senses, I actually pro-rated the amount of bottling sugar I used based upon the final volume of just under 4 gallons, so amazingly I didn't even produce bottle bombs!
I decided to call this brew "Fiddlehead Ale" (even though it was meant to be a lager clone!!), as while it was in the (spare) bathtub fermenting, one day there were two spiders wandering around in there with it. One was quite large and one was small. I had peered at the small one short-sightedly and decided that it was probably a Brown Recluse (a particularly nasty biting spider we have here), while the other I was sure was a Wolf Spider. Brown Recluses have an outline of a fiddle (violin) on their backs, hence their nickname "Fiddlehead Spider". I went off to find something with which to make the world one Brown Recluse shorter, but when I returned, there was only a Wolf Spider and a pile of legs left!! "Brown Recluse Ale" didn't have the same ring as "Fiddlehead Ale", so the latter it became!
After two weeks or so of conditioning in the bottle, came the inaugural opening and consumption... The bottle opened with a gentle "pffft" - a good sign...! When poured into a glass, while maybe not absolutely crystal clear, it certainly looks passable and also has a reasonable head on it. And the taste? Well, it might not be a Harp clone (does adding liquid nitrogen at 110° create a lagering effect? I think not!!), but it is still eminently drinkable and refreshing!
So there you go fellow newbies, when the old-timers respond to your "have I screwed it up" question with "RDWHAHB", pay heed, as there are worse things done to first brews than you have done and yet they still worked out OK in the end!!
My thanks to everyone for the myriad of posts here that have allowed me to realize just how wrongly I did everything, and which have set me back on the rails pointing me in a healthy direction...!!