Is Brewing Beer Too Hard?
So I've been a homebrewer for a long time. I've been slowly amassing a collection of kettles, fermenters, burners, fridges, and keggerators and now after years, it's grown to a truly impressive pile. Despite this, I barely ever make it all the way to the garage to brew. It’s super fun and the payoff of 5 gallons of beer is inherently rewarding, so what is going wrong? Is it just more fun buy stuff to add to an equipment collection than it is to do the actual work? Yeah probably. Is beer more fun as a thought, with all its advanced chemistry, techniques, and styles, than it is to make when you have to get all that right to produce the perfect beer? Perhaps beer is better left to the pros who get paid to perform the incredibly tedious process of formulating the perfect recipe and consistently nailing it. Maybe I just can’t make good beer. Or maybe I have had too much good beer to ever really taste anything good in my own brews. I’m gonna settle on that one.
There is too much good beer here in Seattle for me to even bother with trying to brew it. When my friends drink mine and tell me it’s great, I know they are only so certain of that because free is a really good price. I can taste all the flaws in my own beer and it wasn’t free for me, so unless you are gonna drink the whole keg for me, it isn’t going anywhere. In my case, I built a massive kegerator. It has 4 taps on it so that, in principle, I could serve 4 styles of beer. Have my IPA on tap, the stout, a lager, and an out of season pumpkin spice and people could pick whatever they were in the mood for. In practice, whichever beer turned out the best gets blown first and the others get finished only begrudgingly. If the individual drinker can’t or won’t tell you which is the best keg, the crowd has a magical way of teasing out the answer. The last kegs slowly diminish over the course of several gatherings until they run out, never to be replaced, for whatever reason, usually, my own dissatisfaction combined with laziness - brewing a batch, even a bad one, can take upwards of 4 hours - and the kegerator sits empty. This is not just my story, but a story told many times by many a homebrewer whose hobby has grown too tedious and cumbersome to keep going. But before my ex-girlfriend reading this finishes thinking “I knew he was never going to finish off that extra large container of StarSan,” which by the way I have, here comes the solution: an easier brew that is cheaper, uses only lowest maintenance equipment you already own and takes only an hour or less to get fermenting - I’m talking Cider and Ginger Beer.
The Advantages of Cider and Ginger Beer
While you lose the romantic aspects of brewing the trendiest drink of the last 3 decades (back off kombucha), you’ll find that cider and ginger beer (CnGB) are so much easier to brew, can still be customized in many of the ways beer can and has many other secret advantages that make it a worthy hobby. CnGB is simpler. By subbing out the complex (god, so complex) malted barley backbone of beer for something simpler like cane sugar or juice, you can cut out the heating large quantities of water for mashing and later boiling all that for hopping. You can retain the infinite customizability of beer, even. Have you heard of hopped cider? What about malted cider? If you want to add some complexity back into your CnGB brews, you can add it piecemeal. No longer do you have to start with the whole process of malt mashing, hopping and fermenting. 6 pounds of white sugar in water creates the blankest canvas you can imagine for you to draw your perfect beverage onto. CnGB is cheaper. Malts cost a lot, cane sugar does not. A 6-pound bottle of malt extract might cost $20 but that same $20 will buy 20 pounds of sugar or more, which will produce 3 or 4 times as much total alcohol. That means either a much stronger batch or 3 or 4 attempts to formulate your recipe for the cost of one batch of beer. another fun trick that home brewers may cringe at, though I expect many will rejoice, you can skip lots of tedious cleaning of fermentors between batches. The high protein contents of the malt and the hop residue means that each brew makes a huge mess of the fermentor. If you cut all that out, new CnGB brews get to go right into fermentors on top of a bed of fresh, ready to roll yeast from the previous brew and even bring with it some of the flavors of the previous batch. Cider with just a hint of ginger and lime anyone?
I always have trouble finding actual recipes for cider and ginger beer when I search the internet. Usually, I find myself deep in some forum where I find some jabroni who doesn’t have much of anything to say. Sick of finding “well, really it’s all about how much ginger you want” without even a guess at how much to add, here are some tried and true simple recipes I came up with after some experimentation. You can modify these to your heart's content but if you stick with them you can’t go wrong.
Basic Ginger Beer
This is a very spicy ginger beer. Lime adds a little complexity, but if I really wanted a basic ginger beer, I'd leave it out, though I fear that might be just a little too one dimensional. It ferments very dry, no sweetness at all. Left like that, the spiciness of the ginger beer throws you for a loop. To combat that, we back sweeten in the keg after fermentation to make a delicious beverage that is on the sweet side. The hefty amount of sugar and juice will weigh in at around 1.050 original gravity and ferment close to 1.000 final gravity giving you a total ABV of around 6.5%
3.5 lbs ginger
3.5 lbs lime zested and juiced
6 lbs white sugar for fermenting
4 cups white sugar for back sweetening
1 packet dry champagne yeast
5 tsp. yeast nutrient
4-5 gallons of water
This is the same for every recipe and none of this will surprise a seasoned home brewer, but I repeat it here for the sake of the novices.
5-gallon fermenter with airlock and bung
Siphon with food safe tubing (for transferring out of the fermenter and into the keg)
2-gallon kettle (or whatever size you have)
Bottling or kegging equipment
Kitchen stuff: big spoon, food processor, and juicer
1 hour or less to set up and 1 week or less to ferment. If you are kegging then 1 day to chill, carbonate, and serve.
- These steps are written in a way that experienced brewers will totally understand and that novice brewers will be able to limp through.
- Fill the kettle with a gallon of water and bring it to a boil
- Blend the ginger into a paste and add to the water. Since ginger skin floats better than ginger, if you reduce the ginger to a paste in a blender then you can skim the skin off the water in the kettle with some degree of success. If you are a perfectionist, you can skin the ginger before pasting it, but I have found that the skin does not affect the flavor too much and isn't worth the effort to remove
- Zest and juice all your citrus. Add the juice and zest to the kettle
- Stir in the sugar
- Let the ginger and citrus boil for 30 minutes or so
- Sanitize the fermenter, colander, and anything that will touch the brew as or after it cools
- Add a couple gallons of cool water to the fermenter. This will protect it from the thermal shock of dumping in the boiling hot ginger-sugar water
- Strain out all the solid matter from your ginger water.
- Dump in the hot ginger sugar water
- Top the fermenter up with water to reach 5 gallons. My fermenter has gallon markings on the side so I can see where 5 gallons is if yours doesn’t then figure that out
- Add yeast. Make sure the wort isn’t too hot (over 90 degrees). If you have the patience to prime your yeast beforehand, you can do that.
- Add Yeast nutrient of your choice. I use urea and diammonium phosphate from the homebrew store. This is a step I have not neglected, so I can’t tell you if your brew will fail without it. I suspect that if you skip it, the fermentation will limp for a while or you might not get as much attenuation, but you will otherwise get away with it. In fact, I’ll experiment on that next time in order to further simplify this recipe
- Cover, airlock, set in a closet or something to ferment for about a week. I’ve found that it actually only takes a couple days. Try to keep it to around 70 degrees, but this uber simple recipe won't be ruined if by ~5-10 degrees difference. If you want to get creative with your yeast later, pay more attention to fermentation temperatures
- If you are kegging, follow the next steps. If you are bottling, you won’t be able to back sweeten without messing up the secondary fermentation so prime and bottle like you normally would.
- After a week, siphon the GB over to the keg. Cool it.
- Make a simple syrup with 4 cups of sugar. Add it straight to the keg. This is pretty sweet, so consider adding half and working up to the full amount or even adding more if you want sweeter you can go sweeter. If the keg is refrigerated when you add the sugar, then fermentation picking back up will not be a problem.
- Force carbonate your preferred way and serve.
This is a super simple cider that is a blank canvas for any cider you want to make. Plain apple juice weighs in at about 1.050 OG and will ferment dry leaving you with about a 5% abv cider. It’s simple and cheap to make. It’s best brewed right after brewing a ginger beer so you can reuse the same fermentor without cleaning it, the same yeast (now stronger and riled up), and the residual flavor from the ginger you couldn’t siphon out.
- 5 gallons of store bought apple juice - ideally not from concentrate and not with added vitamin C
If your last brew was the ginger beer, then the next brew is easy. After siphoning off the ginger beer into the keg you can immediately start your next brew by pouring the apple juice straight onto the yeast bed and remaining ginger beer. If not, all you need to do to complete this cider recipe is add the juice to a sanitized keg and add new yeast and nutrient. After a week, your simple cider is ready.
These are both extremely easy recipes, especially the cider. They are both jumping off points. I’m experimenting with these recipes right now. Different amount of sugar added before fermenting will increase the abv. Up to 18 pounds of sugar should be within the realm of normal champagne yeast to ferment up to about 15% abv. Hops, roasted malts, fruit, and anything else you can think of would make excellent variations on this. With these base recipes, there really is no way to go wrong. My next batches, keeping in line with the simple theme, are experiments in making the easiest possible batches. Chopped pineapple, a bit of grape juice in apple juice to switch it up a bit, added brown sugar to change the abv. Stuff like that. Take advantage of the ease of brewing CnGB to supplement your brewing when you just don't have the time or patience to brew anymore!