Episode 4: Honey Porter

Fri 23 Nov 2007 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | 1 Comment | Posted by: Michael

In which I ramble about the history of beer in New England and demonstrate the process of brewing up a batch of a favorite and storied style.

This is a Dutch family crest hanging in the cathedral in the city of Haarlem, The Netherlands. Note the kegs. And those little golden shapes being carried in the arms of the rampant lions are sheaves of barley. I wish I had taken more pictures of these. There were some with barley, kegs AND beehives.

First, in honor of Thanksgiving, some beer history.

A much bandied-about piece of American beer-lovers’ lore is that the only reason the Pilgrims weighed anchor at Plimoth Rock, rather than holding out for someplace warmer farther south, was because the Mayflower’s supply of beer had run out–beer being safer to drink than most water in 1620. But they couldn’t get beer when they got off the boat. The Indians grew corn, beans, pumpkins and tomatoes, but not barley. As far as I am aware (based on the minimal interactions thus far between my beer fascination and my Mesoamerican fascination), unlike many other societies of the Americas, none of the Massachusett tribes brewed any sort of fermented starch beverage. And as it turned out, barley was a hard crop to introduce to New England’s rocky soil. As late as the mid-eighteenth century, brewers in the Pioneer Valley were still making their ‘ale’ out of pumpkin juice. Which is why you still see local seasonal favorites like Post Road Pumpkin Ale, which are mostly just ye usual barley beer with a little clove and nutmeg, no actual pumpkin involved. So I suspect that if the ale they drank with the first Thanksgiving dinner was indeed pumpkin ale, well, it probably wasn’t very good.

My own chosen brew for the holiday season will come from an American tradition of a somewhat more recent pedigree: a honey porter, much like those that were kept ready to hand at roadside inns all along the Boston-Albany post road in a time when the New England countryside was a bit more settled, for the refreshment of post riders, coachmen and travelers. Have you ever seen one of those absurdly tall, tapered “beer yard” glasses that they hand out in plastic form at Mardi Gras? I have heard that the original purpose of those things was to be long enough such that the beer wench could hand up a freshly-drawn quaff to a horseman in a hurry without him even having to step out of the saddle. Alas for the days of yore.

Speaking of horsemen in a hurry–you know who else was a brewer of small beer? Paul Revere.

And speaking of brewer/patriots, here’s a cool thing I came across…Sam Adams has teamed up with some food historians in the employ of the historical theme park that is the modern-age Plimoth Plantation to create an “historically accurate” period ale: Mayflower Golden Anniversary Ale. The ad copy on the site sort of sidesteps having to tell us any actual beer history, but I have to admit the idea of sitting down for a pint at a silly place I went once on a field trip in elementary school…and then having another pint and heading on over to play around on their replica tall ship… well, that sounds like a damn fine late fall afternoon. And this Sunday the 25th just happens to be the last day before they close for the season!

Guess I know what I’ll be doing Sunday.

But on to the brewing of the porter. A warning–this is an involved process with a lot of meticulous details to digest. If your holiday celebration was anything like mine (ie included tryptophan and wassail), you might want to go have a nap first. I take no credit for the recipe, which can be had from Northampton Beer and Winemaking Supply, here.

  • Sterilize all equipment – Put 5 gallons of water and 2 tablespoons household bleach in a large container, then fill it up with equipment and let it sit for 25 minutes. I usually do this in two shifts, one using my primary fermenter, and the other using my mash tun (so both vessels get sanitized in the process). While you wait, check your freezer to make sure your ice cube trays are full. More about this later. Also, if you’re using liquid yeast, take that out of the fridge so it thaws to room temperature.My favorite advice about sterilization comes from the late, great father of American homebrewing, Michael Jackson (no, not that one). He says to be as meticulous and thorough as you can about sterilizing everything you can–but don’t be so meticulous and thorough that it stops being fun. The more practice you get, the more routine it will seem and the less like a burden. You’ll figure out where to cut corners and where not to, and your brew and your enjoyment of it will improve accordingly. Time was I used to sanitize everything, every time–bottles, pots and pans, fermenters, utensils. Now I just do what I need for the portion of the task at hand. In this case, all I’m doing is boiling the wort and dumping it into my primary fermenter.For a full list of the equipment involved, see Episode 2.
  • Mash the grains – The equivalent of putting on a giant pot of barley tea to steep, allowing the starches and sugars to be fully absorbed into the water. In an 8-quart pasta pot, heat 2 1/4 quarts of water to 168 degrees Fahrenheit, dump in your cracked grains (in this case 2 1/4 pounds of mixed medium crystal malt, black malt and chocolate malt), cover and steep for 45 minutes, maintaining a temperature around 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, in your mash tun, heat 2 more gallons of water to 170 Fahrenheit.
  • Sparge the grains – The equivalent of squeezing the last drop of caffeine out of a giant barley tea bag (where caffeine is here represented by sugar and starch). Beginning brewer’s guides often advise, with devious jocularity, that you uncork the last of your previous batch and drink while you’re brewing the next. It is largely due to the delicacy of sparging that I tend to ignore this advice. This step is tricky, and has at times resulted in me making a giant mess of my kitchen.Carefully pour off the 2 gallons of hot water from your mash tun into any other available vessels. I use a pyrex 1 quart measuring cup as a ladle. Now, line your colander with cheesecloth and suspend it over your mash tun in as secure a fashion as possible. The trouble with this is that the mash tun holds 5 gallons, and most colanders are designed to fit snugly over a 1 or 2 gallon pot. You can see in the photo my clever solution: I took the rubber-lined lid off a travel coffee mug and jammed it in between the side of the colander and the pot. This is by no means a perfect solution, but as long as I’m careful not to touch it, it works out ok.Dump your mashed grain and the associated liquid into the colander. Using your measuring cup ladle, gradually pour over it the entire 2 gallons of heated water, then let the colander drain for 10 minutes. This will rinse any remaining goodness out of the grain into the mash tun. Stick your head over the mash tun and breathe in. You’ll get scents of oatmeal, coffee and chocolate. Mmm.
  • The boil
    1. Bring the mash to a boil over high heat. Be careful to leave the lid off the pot. Your kitchen will get very steamy, but that way you’re more or less guaranteed not to have your pot boil over, which is a horrible experience that usually results in caramelized malt congealing all over your stove, necessitating hours of scrubbing. Turn on your kitchen fan, if you have one.
    2. Add malts and additional sugars – Momentarily remove the mash tun from the heat. If you don’t, your malt and sugars will hit the bottom of the tun and caramelize into a black tar that is a pain in the ass to clean. Add your malt and sugars, stirring well. For this recipe I’m using 6 pounds of light malt extract and 1 pound of wildflower honey. Technically, this whole step is optional–the mashing and sparging step would just have taken a lot longer. If I were really hardcore and patient, I could have substituted a hell of a lot more grain and skipped the malt, which is really nothing more than all the starch and sugar extracted from the grain in a concentrated form.
    3. Add hops – Return the mash tun to the heat and return to a boil for one hour, during which you will periodically add small quantities of hops. The closer to the beginning of the boil the hops go in, the more bitter the resulting brew will taste–whereas if you add them nearer the end of the boil, they will contribute more to the beer’s aroma than its flavor. For the honey porter, I have an ounce of Cluster hops for bittering and half an ounce of Mt. Hood hops for aroma. They both smell great. Each infusion of hops causes a bit of a bubble-up in the pot, so I am careful to stir the mash as I do so. I use the pelletized variety, which looks like rabbit food but makes less of a mess than fresh hops and works just as well.
  • Cool the wort – Another tricky part. After boiling for an hour, shut off the heat and let the mash tun stand for fifteen minutes to allow the remnants of the hops and any bits of grain to settle out somewhat. We’re about to pour off the mash (which may now be referred to as “wort”–aren’t these beer vocab words cool?) into our primary fermenter, and we want to leave as much of the solids behind as we can in order to achieve a clearer beer. The problem is that the mash liquids are very hot, and the yeast, which we are about to add, is very sensitive to temerature. Plus, my primary fermenter is made of plastic, which doesn’t much like high temperatures either. So the object here is to bring the temperature down from ~212 degrees to ~90 degrees as quickly as possible. Professional brewers (and well-equipped homebrewers) use a thing called a wort chiller for this purpose: usually a length of copper piping bent into a coil and packed with ice (the increased surface area of the piping means more rapid cooling). I do not have a wort chiller, having thus far not gotten around to making one. Someday. In the meantime…remember the ice cubes I said to make in step one?I lifted this clever method from Alton Brown on Good Eats. Empty all your ice trays into your primary fermenter. I have three trays myself. I wouldn’t go much higher than five or the wort might end up too cold. Add water, as cold as circumstances will allow, to fill the fermenter up to 2 gallons. Now carefully pour in the wort–leaving as much of the settled-out solids behind as possible. Drop your thermometer in there, top up the fermenter to five gallons with more cold water, and stir vigorously. Hopefully this will bring the wort’s temperature down around 85 – 95 degrees Fahrenheit, ideal temperature for yeast.
  • Add yeast – With liquid yeast, all you do is shake it up, pour it in, and stir gently. With dry yeast, you need to activate it first (like you do with bread yeast). Add the contents of the packet to half a cup of warm water (85-95 degrees), wait 15 minutes, mix it up, then add to the wort and stir gently.
  • Wait – Fit the lid tightly over your primary fermenter, plug an airlock into the hole in the lid, and sequester the fermenter somewhere out of direct sunlight (which can interfere with the chemical processes of fermentation, and is the number one cause of ‘skunked’ beer). Over the next week, the yeast will froth up vigorously, expelling a great deal of carbon dioxide through the air filter and converting most of the starch and sugars in the wort into alcohol.
  • The next step is secondary fermentation, and after that, bottling and carbonation. I will leave that for another time, since this entry is probably already way longer than you cared to read, especially after all that turkey.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

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    One Response to “Episode 4: Honey Porter”

    1. Episode 9: Strawberry Wheat/Wine : Not a journal. on August 25th, 2008 6:18 pm

      […] (short version – refer to The Complete Joy of Homebrewing or my Honey Porter entry for more): Juice berries. Mash grain in water for 45 minutes at 154 degrees F. Sparge grain with […]

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