One of the great pleasures of homebrewing is its social aspect. Like a magic magnet, it attracts interesting, passionate people. If you’ve been brewing for some time, you probably know what I mean. If you’re new to the hobby, I urge you to get in touch with other brewers through your local homebrew shop, through the American Homebrewers Association (www.beertown.org), or through searching online.
Whether you’re generally a “joiner” or not, in a homebrew club you’ll usually find the kind of warmth and easy familiarity the Germans call Gemütlichkeit.
Even single brewer, in a kitchen or garage, can make beer equal to the most treasured commercial brews, a power afforded by few pastimes. But put a group of brewers together and even more amazing things can happen. Some of them I present here, to get you thinking—and brewing.
This idea originated with a group of suburban Chicago brewers, although it has come to be the rage among certain microbreweries. Brewing a bourbon stout couldn’t be simpler.
First, obtain a recently used bourbon barrel. These 50-gallon, charred oak containers cost a bundle when new but cannot be reused for bourbon (although there’s a move afoot to change that). Many are disassembled and shipped off to Scotland, but garden centers often sell them, to be split into planters. I have also seen them at barrel companies. If you’re having trouble locating a barrel in you area, might I suggest that a road trip to bourbon country can be both fascinating and fun.
If the barrel you find is somewhat dried out, you may first want to refresh it by adding a bottle of inexpensive but respectable bourbon.
Then, assemble enough brewers to produce 50 gallons of stout. Each one can brew separately or you can gang up on brew day for one massive assault. At any rate, let the beer ferment out through the primary before adding to the barrel. Then, add all the beers to the barrel—make sure the barrel is stable, because it will be very heavy when full—and let the contents age. After a few weeks or months, depending upon the strength of the beer, have everyone assemble for a massive bottling party, or just rack off the stout into soda kegs, and you’ve got something wonderful.
Although a strong, export-style stout was the subject of the first efforts, any strong beer style will work, such as barley wine, imperial stout, or Scotch (strong) ale. If you like peated Scotch ales, toss in a wee drappie or so of a lower-priced single malt.
Wine Barrel Lambics
A brewpub in Cleveland, infiltrated by maniac homebrewers, came up with this one. Find one or more used wine barrels, reasonably fresh, not dried out, and use to flavor your next brew. This brewpub got several and had a “barrel water tasting” by brewery staff to determine which barrel would be used for what.
Wine barrels used for heavier-tasting reds might be best for beers with strongly-flavored fruits like raspberries, while lighter reds might be suitable for cherries, or for a non-fruit beer such as a Flemish sour brown. Whites might go for peaches or for fruitless beers like straight lambics. Wine barrels do come in different sizes, but 50 gallons is the most common size.
A homebrewer in northern Wisconsin maintains two barrels, one for lambics and one for sour browns. He uses them in solera fashion, in which a quantity of beer is periodically removed to make way for a new portion, but the whole barrel is never emptied. The beer is thus a blend of old and new, an important feature of many antique beers. Such a barrel could be maintained as a “club beer,” which is bottled or kegged only for group use, or bottled 5 or 10 gallons at a time, and dispersed. Brewers could contribute on a rotating basis.
Prepackaged Belgian yeast/bacteria mixes will give the appropriate flavors, but this is a complicated subject that will take some study and experience before you proceed on this larger scale.
Barley Wine Solera
This is just a way to procure a supply of blended ancient and new barley wine. Obtain a large demijohn or barrel, from 15 to 50 gallons. As in the above, brewers rotate brew duty. The only rule is that the beer must be at least a certain gravity, which, in my opinion, should be ridiculously high. Give this beer a special name, make ritual offerings to it on beer holidays—worship it, really—and serve it only for very special occasions. The result will be very fine, guaranteed to hold a group together.
This spectacle is a sure-fire crowd pleaser, with giant fires, plenty of steam, and dangerously hot boiling liquids. And because of the intense caramelization of the wort by the hot rocks, the beer’s a delight as well.
My friend, Ray Spangler, used to organize a stone beer demo at the infamous Oldenburg Beer Camp. He employed palm-size granite stream cobbles. These are generally stable and not prone to flaking, as are rougher rocks.
For a 5-gallon batch, you’ll need about 7 to 8 pounds of rocks, weighing about one-half to 1 pound each. The original stone used in Bamberg, Germany, is called greywacke and is somewhat hard to find. The best candidates are dense, igneous (volcanic) rocks, such as granite or basalt, and I’ve heard that quartzite works as well. Avoid limestone or other sedimentary rock, as it is porous, soluble in beer, and prone to cracking.
Be aware that any rock can shatter violently when heated, especially when the heating is rapid. Be sure that everyone brewing is wearing goggles or safety glasses. There’s bound to be some splashing, too, so suit up.
This is a good cold weather extravaganza. You’ll need a roaring campfire. Place the stones in the fire, and heat them until they’re as hot as you can get them—glowing red or white. Use long tongs to transfer the stones into a basket made from stainless steel strapping or screen mesh, with brass or stainless chains attached from the basket to a wooden pole that two people can handle. Then, slowly lower the rocks into the brew.
There will be a dramatic release of steam; people will ooh and aah. Once the steaming has subsided, pull out the basket of rocks. The heat of the rocks will further caramelize the wort on their surfaces. When the wort gets nice and dark, you can add it back to the kettle. Complete the boil with a conventional heat source.
The Germans put the caramelized rocks in the fermenter, but with smaller rocks, it’s not necessary. Stone beer is a fun but complicated brew, and is worthy of further study before attempting. Check out back issues of Zymurgy and Internet newsgroups such as Homebrew Digest. And do be careful!
A Group Brew
Just getting everybody’s equipment together for a brew can be a lot of fun, whatever the beer. While this usually takes place in backyards and driveways, it can be much more extreme. For example, the Bloatarian Brewing League has a campout—Beer & Propane—that culminates in a mystic late-night campfire ceremony, complete with holy relics, silly hats, and the pounding of the symbol of Evil Order (as represented by a can of mega-brew) into the earth.
One of my brewing buddies makes a beer at the start of a week of river rafting, to be consumed at the end of the event. It’s a little rough sometimes, I guess, but there are never any leftovers.
All you need for such festivities is fresh water, a non-flammable surface, and an understanding (or homebrew-loving) life partner. I’m hosting such a brew-in for my club on National Homebrew Day, May 5. The attractions will include barbecue and an equipment swap meet as well as profligate brewing.
The American Homebrewing Association organizes a communal event called Big Brew in celebration of National Homebrew Day. If you are so inclined, I urge you to check it out on their aforementioned website. Whatever you do, just get together. It’ll be a blast.
I hope to hear the roar of propane all over this great nation that day.