A Beginner’s First Brew Day

My dad recently returned from a trip to South Africa and brought back some yummy loose leaf lemon rooibos tea for Beer Nerd Boyfriend. He’s not much of a tea drinker, but as soon as he suggested using it to brew a beer, I knew I had to jump in. I’ve never participated in a brew day before and if you spend a lot of time around a home brewer, you get curious. It all seemed like some kind of magical science to me.

My friend Shia knows what I'm saying.
My friend Shia knows what I’m saying. (giphy.com)

Well, it is pretty much magical science – but it’s a magical science that I understand a bit more now!

For the uninitiated, beer is made using grains, hops, water and yeast. If you want to get a little weird with it, you can also toss in spices, fruits, vegetables or anything else, really. The process is almost like making a tea. You steep the grains in hot water, and then add everything else at very precise times throughout the boil, depending on the intended effect. The yeast is added in once everything has cooled down, and the beer is ready to ferment in a carboy for a few weeks.

So we started off with the Rooibos tea and went from there. Rooibos is a robust-tasting, caffeine-free red tea that lends itself well to vanilla and citrus flavors. Therefore, we decided to go for a style that usually aims for fruity flavors and light bitterness: the American Pale Ale. It just so happens that APAs are some of my favorite beers. As implied by the name, APAs are different from your typical IPAs because they’re made using all-American hops, and the focus is on tropical, fruity flavors.

Nick decided to compliment those hoppy notes with a touch of bitterness as well as a biscuit-like malt backbone – because who doesn’t love tea and biscuits? We used a combination of three hops, all citrusy in nature: Citra, El Dorado and Mosaic. We aimed for around 40-45 IBUs, so nothing too intense or overwhelming.

All the hops!
All the hops!

Here’s what I learned today: brewing takes some precise math. You need specific amounts of everything, and you need to be ready to add them at very specific times. It’s like brewing a multi-stage batch of tea. Luckily, there’s a computer program to help us calculate that.

Thank you, BeerSmith!
Thank you, BeerSmith!

Our first order of business was to sanitize all the things. And when I say all the things, I mean ALL THE THINGS. If brewing implements aren’t rigorously cleaned, an infection might sneak into your beer and affect the taste.

Lesson #1: everything needs to be constantly sanitized.

Then again, over-sanitization can bring along its own list of scientifically named off flavors.

Lesson #2: Brewing is a very exact and often contradictory science.

After everything was clean and ready to go, we began heating the water.

Lesson #3: brewing requires lots of water.

Which leads directly to the next lesson:

That's not even the half of it.
That’s not even the half of it.

Lesson #4: Your socks are going to get wet.

Next step: grains!
Next step: grains!

While the water was reaching optimal temperature, Nick measured out all the grains we would need. Then, the fun part: grinding the grain in an old-fashion mill, all by hand. Good thing we were only making a five-gallon batch!

Grain GrinderOnce the water reached the desired temperature, we transferred it to a device called a Mash Tun and steeped the ground grains in it. We were mashing the grains at a fairly low temperature today, since we were looking for just a little bit of malt to carry the hops. If we were making a maltier, sweeter beer, the temperature would have been higher.

Once that’s all steeped nicely, something called sparging happens – which is a lot more pleasant than it sounds. Sparging is the process through which sugars are separated from the grains. While the water was draining out into the kettle, we added – surprise, surprise – even more hot water! This flushes out as much sugar out of the grains as possible, leading to the creation of our lovely wort. This wort is then brought to a boil, along with the hops and any other fun extras. Before we got into that, Nick tossed a hop bag containing Mosaic and El Dorado into the kettle as we drained water into it. This is known as the first wort hop, and it has a smooth bittering effect.

Sadly, I didn’t get any picture of the wort or the hop-addition process because this was all taking place on a propane burner outside, where it was incredibly cold (Thanks, Canada!). Basically, Nick’s stove can’t take the weight of an enormous pot full of water for an extended period of time, and he found this out firsthand when he broke one of his burners. So the boil is done outside.

Lesson #5: You’re not a real home brewer until you’ve done serious damage to your home.

Tea and Hops Ready
Now that you’ve broken your house, time for some hops!

The hops were carefully measured and thrown in at different intervals during the 60-minute boil. The impact of the hop on the beer changes depending on how long it’s boiled. As you can see from this handy chart below, the timing on this has to be pretty exact. I got to know this firsthand since I was the timekeeper.

Lesson #6: The timekeeper’s job is VERY IMPORTANT!

Hop Boil Times

This time around, we added three hop additions during the boil; Mosaic for 20 minutes to get its flavor, 10 minutes of El Dorado for flavor and aroma, and Citra for the final five minutes, mostly for aroma. When we had seven minutes left, we sprinkled in a generous amount of our Rooibos tea. Right as we flamed out, we threw in a combo of all three hops, purely for aroma.

After the boil, we let everything cool down for a while – at least the snow is good for something, right? Then, we tossed it all in a five-gallon carboy with the live yeast, and let it chill out in Nick’s basement for about three weeks while it ferments.

Lesson #7: Patience is difficult, but it’s worth it.

Before putting it away, we had a preliminary taste, and it was promising. The tea was there, but not too prominent, the bitterness wasn’t overwhelming and the fruity notes we wanted were very present.

See? Magic!
See? Magic!

Now that enough time has passed, we’ve only got a few more steps and a few more days until we get a first taste of the final product. Again, patience is a virtue in this business.

Stay tuned for an update on the kegging and our very first taste of the Rooibos APA!


Now, let me end this post on a bad joke that I made up while we were brewing:

Q:What are zombified home brewers always looking for?


wil wheaton
…RIGHT? (giphy.com)


Lesson #8: Valerie likes terrible puns.


3 thoughts on “A Beginner’s First Brew Day

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