Homebrew #1: SFBC “Alex Mack” Blonde Ale (5 Gal)

wort boil

I’m going to try to not bore people. I’m sure any experienced homebrewer reading this will find lots of things…. funny. I don’t want to say it was a disaster, but I was was thoroughly drained and demoralized when it was finally all done (like, 6 hours later).

**Warning: F-bombs ahead**

My last barrier / hurdle to doing my first brew was dealing with the temperature for the two-week fermentation phase (recipe called for 68 to 73 F, and my kitchen had been around 64 or lower). After prolonged procrastination, my issue resolved itself with the arrival of spring (my kitchen temperature is now ranging from 66 to 70 F, according to the fridge magnet thermometer).

I decided I had to “just do it”, as a “now or never” type thing. Frankly, I was tired of seeing all the reminders of my procrastination hanging out all over the place.

So, here it is: the documentation of the first homebrew (intentionally picture-heavy, but I’m still figuring out the WordPress editor). It’s written from the perspective of someone who knows nothing, so hopefully it’s helpful or entertaining to other people who know nothing.

Organizing and Cleaning up

I figured I’d clean the sink, since I meant to use it for cooling the wort [Edit: Wort = the barley and hop liquid … or “malt-sugar solution boiled before fermentation”] later on.

I wiped down the stove top, since, you know, I was taking pictures.

BTW, I chose the “Alex Mack Blonde Ale All Grain Recipe Kit” from Short Finger, a really cool homebrew / microbrewery place nearby. I do kind of wonder who this “Alex Mack” fellow is… I mean, I don’t think he’s a SFBC employee, as far as I can tell? 😀

The “Mash” Part

I started this around 3:11 PM on a Sunday.

[Edit: Mash =  hot water steeping process…. basically making a barley tea in this stage.]

So, long story short, I had the 5-Gallon pot and I planned to do Brew In A Bag (BIAB), which was contrary to the instructions.

I put about 14 L into my big pot, and I was like, “I need to leave room for the grain…” so I took some of that water out…

I ended up filling another pot (my old 7 L pot) with about 4 L water, because I was worried I couldn’t get all the grain into the one big pot.

While waiting for the water to come up to temp (which took forever), I put the grain into my grain bags, did an estimate of how much space that might take, and proceeded accordingly.

Side note: seeing how much “chaff” came through the muslin bags convinced me from the get-go that I’d made the right decision on this particular thing.

So, once the water got to 164 F, I turned off the heat, and put in the bags (dunking to saturate, while trying not to splash hot water everywhere).

Then, the goal was to maintain 150 F for 1 hour… the temperature was supposed to drop once the grains went in, I’m assuming; but, my temp really didn’t drop too much. I wondered if 160 F was too hot for the mashing.

As per the recipe, I kept checking the temperature every 15 minutes. I turned the heat back on for the pots just once.

In the meantime, I did the thing of weighing out the additions.

When the hour was up, it was time to let the grain bags drip. I knew this was going to be “arm day” and I was fine with that. I held up each one until the dripping slowed down, and then tossed ’em. (I’d alloted 15 mins for this process). So far, I felt good about it.

When the grain was dealt with, I poured the smaller pot liquid into the giant pot. It looked like there still wasn’t full volume, so I added about 6 cups of water. No idea if that was a bad thing to do, but whatever.


I turned the heat up to a boil. J asked me if there was a target boil temperature, and I said I had no idea.

It takes an eternity for five-fucking-gallons of water to come up to a boil. Once it did, I started the 60 min timer and added the first hop addition (28g package of hop pellets).

wort boil

I guess I didn’t really realize this until I went through the process, but those hop pellets completely dissolve in the boiling liquid.

I started working on the sanitizer solution. I was using Star San. I was rather annoyed that the label said to mix “1 oz star san to 5 gallons water”…. um, I don’t think I need five-fucking-gallons of sanitizer solution, do I?! I realize it’s just providing the ratio, but can I get a smaller yield without doing math?! I tried to do math to mix less (like, half the amount), but even then, I had no idea how I’d measure 2.5 Gallons (9.5 L). My biggest measuring cup was 500ml.

So I gave up and mixed five-fucking-gallons of sanitizer solution.

Meanwhile, while an English major tried to do math, the wort was boiling over. I expected some foaming and such, but some spilled over and made a bit more of a mess than I would’ve liked.

5:41 PM
6:09 PM

Also, the “dissolving hops” create a gross-looking scum on the sides and the lid… seriously, it looks fucking nasty.

And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Now, I found the aroma to be rather nice and nostalgic… it was reminicent of a barn, and I mean that in a good way (I have farm experience). I’d describe it as “earthy”.

Anyways, going back to the boil schedule. This was where I screwed up again (which is funny, because I’d thought that the addition schedule was going to be the one thing I’d nail). I’d like to claim I was too distracted by the sanitizer debacle, but maybe I’m just daft. I was supposed to add the whirlfloc tablet after 45 mins, which means I should’ve had 15 mins left on the timer… but I misunderstood my own notes and put the tablet in when the timer said 45 mins (after only 15 minutes of boiling). So, I got it backwards. *facepalm*.

Before I realized my misunderstanding, I’d also put in the next hop addition after 30 mins (it was supposed to be after 50 mins). So those hops and whirfloc were in there boiling for wayyyy longer than they were supposed to be.

So, having 30 minutes left to go, I decided to add the last hops at the 50 min boil mark.

The “Cooling” part

When 60 mins were up, I turned off the heat, and put the pot into the sink with cold water and ice packs to cool it down to the 68 – 73 F range.

cooling wort

It takes an eternity for five-fucking-gallons of water to cool. I shouldn’t have added the ice packs first. I should’ve just used cold water at first, changed the water a few times, and then added the ice packs.

Tip for next time: If you plan to cool wort in the sink, you need to constantly change the water and swirl the wort with a sanitized “stirring stick” (I use the “cane”). I’ll try to go easy on the details, but I was so bored at this point and just wanted to be done with this. This cooling took me 2.5 hours. Meanwhile, J went out and got a party pizza for us, lol.

Preparing for fermentation

I finally got a reading of around 70 F, and I was ready to pour the wort into the carboy [Edit: Carboy = some container used for in-home fermentation of beverages]. It was 9:00 PM by this time.

Originally, I’d planned on using a glass carboy, but that morning, I decided I should probably use one of the carboy buckets instead. Weight was a concern, and I didn’t feel like finding a blanket to protect it from light. Fittingly, I used a plastic Canadian Tire bucket.

I’d overlooked the fact that the strainer I’d sanitized was not going to work with this bucket… it wasn’t big enough to sit on the top. So I had to do a last-minute scramble and santized a collander.

So, this might sound obvious, but trying to pour a 5-gallon pot full of liquid is rather unwieldy. I mean, yes, it’s a bit heavy.

I admit it: I don’t like to ask for help, even if I probably should. Asking for help is a “last resort”.

As you can see, I got a good portion of wort all over the floor. But, that’s okay, I expected some spillage.

That photo (which shows the connected airlock and stuff) is getting a bit ahead: after pouring the wort, I was already frazzled and tired. I realized I had to hurry up and pitch the yeast before it got too cold. So I sprinkled it in, and aerated with the cane.

I then realized that in my haste, I’d forgotten to take the gravity before pitching the yeast. [Edit: Gravity = describes the concentration of malt sugar]. Fine, whatever… I put some of the stuff into the test jar, and stuck the hydrometer in. (Again, I was in a frazzled hurry, so there aren’t photos of this stuff).

I was seriously so done with this project at this point… the hydrometer bobbed in the test jar of wort, and I was like “… what am I looking for again?” I couldn’t really see the numbers on the hydrometer in my state, but it seemed to be in the “beer” range. I decided that was good enough, and it would probably be a miracle if the beer was drinkable in the end anyways.

I put on the lid, and attached the airlock with the blow-off hose. I kept trying to get the hose to cooperate with me, so I could get the end into a container of sanitizer solution. In this struggle, I was also trying to keep the airlock secure…

I accidentally pushed the airlock through the hole… then, struggling to get it up and out, the rubber stopper disconnected and plopped into the wort. I fished the damn thing out, sanitized another airlock, and reconnected it (carefully).

There. Five-fucking-gallons of fermenting wort under my kitchen table.

Finally done: 9:21 PM