The First All-grain Batch: Carbon Monoxide, Lessons in Electronics, and Mechanical Failures.

Shawn Kerr/ Head Brewer, beer geek, and all-around classy guy. 

Over a decade ago I delved into the world of homebrewing, and almost from the start jumped right in as an all-grain brewer.  I’ll admit I did play with a couple extract recipes, but found myself rather unsatisfied with my level of control.  Clearly I am either a glutton for punishment or a meticulous perfectionist.

 I’ll set the stage for you as we scroll back into the annals of my blurred history as a homebrewer.  It was a chillingly cold, bitter cold, cloudy day (or maybe that was just me that was cloudy by the end of the day).  My good friend Alex, a fellow homebrewer turned commercial, and I were setting up shop with my newly built half-barrel system in my garage.  The beer on the docket for that day, Dopplebock, because your first all-grain batch should probably be a stepped decoction mash, right? No.

Lesson number one: Start with something easy, like a single infusion Oatmeal Stout or a Pale Ale.  Stick with a simple grain bill, especially when brewing the Pale Ale – 90-95% base malt, and one or two specialty grains, but keep those crystal malts below 5%.  If you choose the dark side, don’t be afraid to use those flaked oats and flaked barley, but be careful of the stuck mash.  I often like to use a step at 122 F when using high amounts of flaked adjuncts in order to avoid the stuck mash, but, again, this is raising the bar slightly for a new brewer

 The winds were picking up as the morning moved on and the propane burners just weren’t handling the gusts very well.

 Lesson number two: Carbon monoxide poisoning sucks.  Never pull the garage door down all the way and let yourself stew in the fumes of your burner.  Use ventilation unless you like headaches and possibly death when brewing in a garage of enclosed space.  I try to avoid death in most cases, especially when I have secondary fermentations to worry about. 

 As the day moved forward, the beers continued to flow.  We’re making beer, so surely we should be drinking beer.  I hear this phrase from homebrewers all the time, and I truly believed it myself.  In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “not that there is anything wrong with that.”

 Lesson number three: Let’s attack the topic of drinking while brewing.  This was a hard lesson learned for me over the years, but I finally figured it out: you make better beer when you aren’t drunk doing it.

 We often used a cell phone to watch our hop schedule times in those days, as there wasn’t a fancy touch-screen computer to show us our brew times and temperatures.  Alex loved that flip phone and in one quick slip the Cellabrator Dopplebock was born.

 Lesson number four: Cell phones will not withstand a boil.  Don’t hold a cell phone directly over a boil kettle, unless you intend to buy a new one tomorrow.  This also brings me back to lessons two and three; Carbon monoxide poisoning and inebriation make you a sloppy brewer.  

 In ten hours or more a cell phone, a mash, and some serious brain cells had been sacrificed, but it was the beginning of a ten-year endeavor to consume and learn all I could about the science and art of brewing.  It’s a continuous lifelong learning process if you are truly passionate about it, and I encourage anyone embarking on his or her first brewing projects to jump in headfirst, read a lot, collaborate with other brewers, and brew often.