Two years ago, my friend Dan came in from the burbs after work and got off the Metra at Hubbard and Artesian in West Town. He was less than a block in to his trek home when he stopped. Hearing commotion of “a bunch of dudes in a bar” where there were no pubs amongst the gray, vacant-feeling industrial area stirred curiosity. Save for shattered sidewalk, smashed rats and gravel lots adjacent the train station, there was merely a plastic tube factory and alleyways wafting in rotting carcasses though the chilled breeze.
Navigating broken Hennessey bottles and potholes of chocolate milk, he found his way to where the clanking glassware echoed. After wandering in, he learned it was a club house for home brewers who were having a monthly gathering. Sharing various homebrews from the tap as well as bottles brought from cellars, they showed Dan around the brew house. They had different brew bays with equipment home brewers need to craft their own batches – especially designed for city dwellers who have neither space nor capacity to stove-top it in tiny kitchens. The most likely candidates didn’t have a garage or basement. The monthly-fee driven club, called Chaos, had a temperature-controlled fermentation room, a lagering fridge, and even a full bar countertop with glowing red backlighting (named The Colorado Lounge after the bar in The Shining), which was donated to them.
We pulled the trigger a year later, signing up for the homebrew club with two other friends of ours. After a few supervised, collaborative brews, I am now going to brew a coffee infused red ale that features coffee that I roast myself and for better or worse, I’m going to document it.
My first solo trip to Brew & Grow for materials was a bit of a holistic ritual. To fit my grain bill, I took time in piecing together the right malted barley from the great wall of malt bins, not unlike the era of scoping out my childhood Lincoln Mall candy store “Buy the Weigh” before going to the movies. I scooped out and weighed my malt in the same fashion I scooped out and weighed my Johnny Appleseeds and Cherry Clan before seeing Beetlejuice for the first, second, third times back in 1988.
I switched out some of the darker looking barley for grain that looked a little bit more “red”. To further bastardize whatever poor slchub’s passion project recipe I stole from the internet, I grabbed 5% of my grain bill in oat flakes because the smell of unmalted cereal grains reminds me of watching Disney’s Gummy Bears alone at 6:00 am every Saturday morning. I scanned my newly christened, hand-written brew recipe book for the hops and yeast I required: Willamette hops for bittering, East Kent Golding for aroma, and one hundred billion Irish ale yeast cells. I cut four feet of blow-off tube to use in tandem with the five-gallon glass fermenter on loan from a friend who found it for a steal at a garage sale. On my way to the register I picked up a carboy grip, a bag of rice hulls, and a package of conditioning sugar.
After paying for my materials I walked over to the milling machine to mill my grain. I enjoy the ritual of milling and bagging. The hands-on process, the aromas and the sounds, to me, are every bit as ritualistic as the analogous flipping over of a vinyl record, dropping the stylus and listening to the initial crackles through the speakers.
When my mill was complete I abruptly queued a mental record scratch and inadvertently dumped half of my grain bill on the shop floor. I looked around and noticed that no one saw. I was shot back to a lesson I learned while working at Aurelio’s pizza in high school, after dropping a fifty-pound ball of dough, splatting it on the linoleum tile. Upon realization I was the sole witness, quickly lifting the dough off the ground and plopping it in the barrel, tucking in and concealing dust, cobwebs, and possibly a dead bumble bee, I marked the dough set-for-use.
“It’s still good. It’s still good.” No one witnessed it; it didn’t happen. I swept up my grain, bagged it and promptly left the shop.
On brew day, I measured out how much water I needed to mash in with at 160 degrees F. I mashed up the grain with my paddle, searching to break up doughballs and let it sit for an hour.
I then made a terrible, embarrassing mistake.
I knew that I needed 6.5 gallons of water to boil my wart because during the sixty-minute boil it’s estimated that roughly 1.5 gallons will evaporate. I calculated that the mash tun had about 2.5 gallons of wort in it, so I began my sparge into the brew kettle that contained 4 gallons of heated water. I’m dumb.
I also forgot to “smack” my package of yeast. You’re supposed to break the nutrient package inside in order to awaken the yeast cells. The indication that they are good to go is when you see the package expand. I remembered to do it like 20 minutes before I needed to pitch. I really hope this was enough time.
After sparging through a strainer, I lifted the kettle on to the burner and brought it to a roaring boil. I immediately added the bittering hops. It smelled so good I wanted to jump into the pot. I’m assuming this is a normal reaction from any reasonable person. Ten minutes before the boil time was up, I added aroma hops.
Chaos has this incredible makeshift device for cooling wort from near boiling temps to the 68 degrees F needed for racking. The rudimentary loops, coils of copper tubing, and gauges strapped to a dolly remind me of something Tesla might have invented in college, hell-bent on teleporting his cat to the future.
After pumping StarSan (sanitizer) through the tubes via electric current, you hook up one end to a cold-water source, and you hook up the opposite end to the brew kettle. You cycle the hot wort through the tubing and back into the brew kettle, while the cold water cycles through the same tubing, but on the outer perimeter, efficiently chilling the wort within minutes. I racked my wort while forgetting to check the Original Gravity. I then pitched my yeast in the high-hope that it was even active by that point.
My blow-off tube was too small for the opening of the fermenter, so I had to jimmy it. My carboy grip handle was too large to fit around the nozzle, so I couldn’t even use that.
The fermentation room is something for nerds to behold. When all is silent and there is no dad-rock blaring via Spotify in the brewhouse, you can hear the yeast doing its thing, munching on all the sugars. Bret strains chomping on starch. On any given day there are probably 100 fermentation jugs in there – lots of bubbling liquid in a serene, controlled environment. It’s quite breathtaking.
I remembered, before cleaning all my stuff up that I needed to check my Original Gravity, so I walked back in and checked it. The hydrometer read 1.025. I was looking for a lot higher than that. Somewhere around 1.060. That’s when the realization of my botch-job hit me. Instead of sparging into 4 gallons of water, I should have sparged into an empty vessel, adding hot water to the mash tun and stirring, in order to extract all the sugar from the grain and sending pure wort into the brew kettle. Basically, I had created a watered-down wort with a final product that would probably be about 3% ABV. In essence I had brewed O’Doul’s.
My friend Mike suggested adding sugar or honey to the would be near-beer. I walked back over the next day with a bag of brown sugar I got from Aldi and dumped a cup and a half into the carboy in attempt to give the yeast something to consume, hoping to bump up the alcohol and CO2 levels. I waited three weeks for fermentation.
For my green coffee, Sweet Maria’s in San Francisco offers a dry process bean from Brazil. Any time I see Yellow Bourbon, (a prestigious, heirloom variety of Coffea Arabica) I begin to drool, and I order it. “City” is the name applied to a medium degree roast of coffee beans In this roast, the beans fully complete first crackle, resulting in medium brown color. Coffee brewed from beans roasted to City-degree will yield full flavor present in the beans without overshadowing its characteristics by the roast. Typically it will highlight bright, acidic notes, but who in the world knows what will be detectable in my concoction of red ale steeped in brown sugar. For all I know this thing will be like drinking a snickers bar, with zero alcohol to cut through and provide balance.
I roasted the green coffee beans in heated, double-barrel, spinning cylinders, otherwise known as 1980s popcorn poppers that I’ve found at thrift stores. I can only use vintage ones because modern poppers include governors for fire safety that won’t allow the beans to reach required heat levels for roasting. Whenever I roast at home, the entire apartment fills with smoke. It’s a delectable, enchanting aroma – but I have no ventilation. The smoke sets off fire alarms and disturbs neighbors and chaff flies everywhere. So, I lead an extension cord out to the back deck.
Halfway through my ghetto-multiple-popcorn-poppers-hooked-up-to-one-extension-cord roast, the glorious smell of coffee was replaced with a smell of burning rubber. As soon as it registered that the extension cord was melting, a fuse blew, and power went out. I was able to finish the roast with a solo popper after flipping the circuit breaker switch in the basement.
48 hours before adding my coffee to my beer, I steeped some grounds in my fridge. I used Areopress for the cold brew process.
I forgot my priming sugar for conditioning, but luckily Chaos has a small supply area with sugar for sale.
I set Spotify to play The War on Drugs and Com Truise. After melting down the priming sugar, I added it along with 100 ml of my cold brew coffee to the fermenter. I then siphoned my beer from the carboy into a bucket, attached the bottling wand, had a quick taste, and starting loading. I didn’t check final gravity. I felt it was pointless due to shoddy sparge tactics and the addition of so much brown sugar.
After channeling The Vile Red Falcon into a voluminous array of amber vessel shapes, I cleaned up the bay, washed everything and finished my glass of Dan’s gose (that tasted not unlike a marvelous version of liquid key lime pie). In at attempt to remove the rubber tubing from the plastic auto-siphoning wand, I snapped it in half. So that was great.
All I have to do now is wait about two weeks for bottle-conditioning, and I shall see how it tastes. Will any one of my twenty-seven missteps cause my beer to be a disaster, or will they have coalesced into an accidental masterpiece? Did the yeast even take off? Will I wake up at 2 am to the sound of 40 glass bottles exploding? All I know is that I’m assuming it will taste awful. I’m planning my next recipe already.
3 thoughts on “The Vile Red Falcon: Home Brewing a Coffee-Infused Red Ale.”
Nice article! I’m working on a website that is right up your alley. I’ll tell you about it the next time I see you. Brew on!
Thanks! Sounds good.