Words by Frank P Connelly
Images by Bryan Flaherty
Brewing beer is an art form that demands adherence to standards of purity and excellence and yet encourages all those who partake to become passionate followers and proponents of the craft.
Bryan Flaherty loves brewing beer and he loves to talk to those who share his brewing passion. Flaherty is a club officer for Colonial Alesmiths and Keggers (CASK). CASK is a homebrewing club which has members in the Hampton Roads area.
Flaherty first started brewing in 2007 when he was on active duty for the Navy. He was with a handful of fellow chiefs while ranking sailors and one of the guys said “let’s brew some beer”. It was an extract brew and he didn’t pay much attention to it. He claims that he didn’t know what he was doing. “It tasted horrible.” “It overflowed and we made every possible mistake”.
He met his wife Sarah in 2010, they were married in June and after the honeymoon, she said “how do you feel about brewing some beer”. His first thought was that she was a keeper. They were living in Hawaii and visited a homebrew shop named “Homebrewing Paradise”. Mike who was the owner, “a great guy and retired Air Force”, sold them a homebrewing kit. Flaherty and his wife took the kit home and brewed their first beer together, a pale ale. “It tasted great!”
Flaherty now brews monthly and averages about 10-12 beer batches a year. There were times when he brewed every other week. But when he was at sea he would brew only four or five times in a year. After retiring from the Navy and especially during these COVID-19 times, he is brewing more to keep the kegs full and to share. Sharing is difficult with COVID-19. He feels more encouraged to brew especially after drinking a great beer and would like to clone it.
He doesn’t necessarily have a favorite beer. Beers that are difficult to get such as Westvleteren 12 become the greatest beer in the world. He gravitates towards darker beers during fall and winter. His preference can change daily. Beers that he brews are the type of beer that he typically cannot find at a store. He has an Imperial Stout on Tap. His favorite is probably a Nut Brown Ale. Overall, he likes a beer that is easy to drink and not too overpowering and is enriched with maltiness. But “In reality, my favorite beer is the one that is in my hand.”
For those who are thinking about how to start homebrewing, he asserts that it is important to take the time to make a few decisions. First decide if you like a challenge, is it because the available beers are not what you want to drink. Homebrewing in 2015 and 2016 really took off. It seemed like everybody wanted to get into Homebrewing. Craft Breweries were opening left and right. Homebrew shops were also opening to satisfy the demand. Some people would make a couple of batches and determine that it was not what they wanted. “Homebrewing is not hard but at the same time it is not easy.” “You can make really good beer with little effort.” “But you can also mess it up pretty quickly.”
However, the first thing is to do is to look around for a Homebrewing Club. There are several homebrewing clubs such as Colonial Alesmiths and Keggers (CASK) and Seven City Brewers. They are great places to start and just by showing up you will meet great people who can help you along that journey. At CASK, they are many who visit and say that they are thinking about homebrewing, some who had just made their first batch and would really like feedback. In 2010 when he started, the Internet was good but it wasn’t great. Now you can find most any information you need on homebrewing on the Internet. But many people find they want the personal interaction that you can get at a homebrewing club.
You should also visit a homebrewing supply store. Flaherty always recommends supporting a brick and mortar store over an online store. It is true that over the last six months many of the brick and mortar stores have struggled. In the Hampton Roads area, it appears that they are surviving because there are many homebrewers. There continues to be the immediate demand for grains, yeast or hops as opposed to having to wait several days for online stores to mail it to you. If you buy from an online store you don’t know how long the grains have been sitting because they buy in bulk. When you arrive at the homebrewing store talk to the owner as they are typically homebrewers. They can advise you as to the minimum amount of brewing equipment you will need to get started and how much you need to invest.
Homebrewing equipment does not have to be costly. There are homebrewers who have low cost systems. They have spent about $150 and yet there are others that have $10,000 systems. You can go crazy or be minimalistic. Are you a tinkerer or an engineer that would like to design it yourself?
Mr Beer is a kit that is often mentioned but is it any good? Flaherty states that it might be easy to use but you are not going to get a good beer out of it. The ingredients have been sitting around for six months or more. It is a cheap way to get into homebrewing in which you can make a gallon at a time on a stove top. However, if you drink and you like it then ok. But because the ingredients are not fresh it could turn people away from Homebrewing. Homebrewing kits are a good way to start until you want to learn to write a recipe and formulate the brewing process.
There are several methodologies to brew beer. One method is call Extract Brewing. Companies take malt and grain and mash it to convert starch into sugars and then boil it down to make a syrup. You take the syrup and mix it with water and now you have a sugary solution. Then boil it for 60 to 90 minutes. During the boil, you are adding hops. Hops are for flavor and aroma. Cool it down and then add yeast.
The next method is all-grain brewing. There are a couple of ways to do all-grain brewing. Flaherty does the brew-in-the-bag method. He puts grain in a bag that gets immersed in water and then heats. The water is drained which is flushed with sugars called wort and then it is put into another container. That is followed with the boil, hops additions, cool down and then yeast is added.
The other method is called sparging which is used by many pro brewers. Sparging includes two subtypes called fly and batch. Sparging means that you put the grain into a container, fill it with water and then drain that water into another container. Then you add additional hot water and rinse the grains. It does take more time. Extract brewing can make a beer in about two hours. Brew-in-a-bag brewing can make a beer in about three and a half hours but sparging increases the time to about five to six hours.
Now that the ingredients are fresher there is not a huge difference between each brewing methodology. Twenty to thirty years ago, the ingredients were not great or fresh and there would have been a marked difference in the styles. Extract brewing would have been inferior. Now that there are more homebrewers, the ingredients are fresher because of the higher turnover at the supply stores. The better and fresher the ingredients the better the beer.
Flaherty brews on a deck, he doesn’t have a lot of storage space and with a minimalistic environment. Brewing-in-a-bag fits all those specifications. Other brewers with more space and working environment may choose to build a two or three-tiered system with sparging.
Fermentation is the converting of sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Specific type of brewer’s yeast is added after cooling down the wort after boiling. The fermentation stage can last for a week to a couple of months depending on the type of beer. It is important to keep the yeast at a relatively stable temperature. The yeast will eat the sugars and as a byproduct produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. The more sugar present the more alcohol is produced. Ales such as IPAs, porters and stouts are fermented at relatively warmer temperature in the range of 60-70 F. Whereas a lager such as a Pilsner would be fermented in a cooler temperature in the range of 45 – 55 F. The cooler the temperature the longer it takes to ferment. An ale can be finished fermenting in 4 – 7 days but lagers can take a month.
After fermenting the next stage is either bottling or kegging. Bottling is tedious and Flaherty primarily kegs. It is within this step that you would do carbonation. Most beers need some form of carbonation to accentuate the flavors and aroma. There are different levels for carbonation but most beers tend to the mid-level of carbonation. Ales such as IPAs would be mid-level but a Pilsner would be higher.
If you keg, then most home brewers force carbonate their beers. To do this you can buy carbon dioxide canisters at your home brew store. By forcing pressure and formulating it based on the volume and temperature you can properly carbonate the beer.
If you bottle, then you can do natural carbonation. There is still some yeast left in each bottle of beer and you can therefore add some extra sugar to each bottle. The yeast will eat that additional sugar and cause carbonation. Flaherty is not a big a fan because it is so inconsistent. Five gallons of beer will get you 50-55 bottles and he has never had all 50 beers be consistent. You can get 1 or 2 bottles with no carbonation and then a handful that are super carbonated.
Cleanliness and sanitation is the biggest issue and concern for brewing. If your equipment is dirty it is going to have a huge detrimental effect. Cleanliness is godliness. Flaherty often needs to be reminded of it because it is easy to be lackadaisical during a long brew day. Sanitize everything that is not boiled. There are products that you can buy for cleaning such as Brewers Wash. Sanitation products can include acidic mixtures that kill bacteria in the 1 – 3 PH range.
Processes can be another issue for brewing. The temperature that you mash can have an effect on your beer. If you mash at a lower temperature such as 150 F, then you may have more sugars and your beer may be drier. If your mash temperature gets too high such as high 150 F to low 160 F the sugars that you convert are not likely to get eaten by the yeast, then your beer may be sweeter.
Fermentation Control such as letting your temperature get too hot or the yeast is not finished then you will get a lot of off flavors often named Phenolics. Phenolics can include flavors such alcoholic, isopropyl, oxidation, cardboard, vegetable or celery, green apple or sourness.
Notable people who have homebrewed and who become professional Cole Corbin at Maine Brewing. Dan Powell with Tradition and David Baum with Billsburg.
Bryan Flaherty continues to find a lot of joy in homebrewing and he especially loves the comradery of like-minded people who share his love of homebrewing.
Bryan Flaherty encourages all homebrewers to attend the next meeting of CASK.