My friend Peter has a hop bine (not vine: hop vines are called bines) growing in his backyard in Granville. A couple of months ago, he put out a call on Facebook to any home brewers who wanted to help pick them, so I said yes.
We had fun picking them, and then had a delicious meal at a restaurant in Auburn, which Peter and Megan don’t want you to know about.
Hops are only ripe for a couple of weeks a year: almost all beer is made with dried hops. To dry hops properly you need a heater/ventilator arrangement – the old-fashioned ones are called ‘oasts’ – or one of those kitchen dehydrator things. I wanted to use the majority of the hops ‘wet’ (boil them fresh, without drying them) but I dried some on a cake rack in the kitchen to keep them for dry-hopping at the end. Hops are pretty, and when freshly picked they smell a lot like dope, to which they are closely related.
Later that week I started brewing. I’ve been making beer since August last year and up till now have just used kits, where you get malt syrup which has already been hopped, top it up with water and add yeast. So this was my first go at doing a boil: to get the bitterness out of hops you need to boil them for at least an hour with some malt. I also had to make up my own recipe, which was this:
- One tin of Coopers Light Malt Extract
- 1kg of Hop & Grain Light Dry Malt Extract
- a big bag of fresh hops
- Mangrove Jacks M44 US West Coast yeast
We didn’t know which variety of hops they were: a friend of Peters had rescued the rhizome from an old farm in the Southern Highlands. Different varieties are good for different things: some for bittering, others for aroma and dry-hopping (at the end of fermentation). Because of the uncertainty, there was no point being scientific about how much hops to put in the boil: I just put as much as I could fit in the hop sock and boiler, and added a couple of handfuls later in the boil in case I could get any complex flavours out of them.
I picked the yeast because I was aiming at a pale ale, and if there was any hop character I wanted to give it a chance to come through.
I added a quarter of the malt syrup to the boil – you need some of it because enzymes in the malt help extract the alpha acids from the hops, but if you boil all the malt, it caramelises and darkens. Boiling the wort with hops made the house smell like weed and Vegemite.
I put the rest of the hops into the freezer.
I bottled it after about twelve days in the fermenter, when I’d had a steady gravity reading for three days in a row. Tasting it at this stage, there was a very strong bitterness, which was a good sign that the boil had worked properly.
For the last couple of days I dunked some of the hops in a bag in the fermenter: if they turned out to be a modern variety like Galaxy this might have given some aroma to the beer.
Then I bottle conditioned them under the stairs for three weeks. A few of the bottles leaked a little in the last week: I think this is a sign that the fermentation got a bit stuck in the fermenter and restarted after bottling. The extra pressure from CO2 has pushed beer out through tiny cracks in the bottles. Next time I’ll leave it in the fermenter for two weeks.
The result is a lot crisper and cleaner than I’d expected, and the strong bitterness at bottling has mellowed a lot. It’s extremely drinkable, and much more like an Australian pale ale than an American – like a less yeasty version of Coopers Green. There’s hardly any hop aroma, which is probably because of the variety: it’s only in the last few decades that Australian hop strains like Galaxy, which give a big citrusy nose, have been around. So I didn’t end up with a big hoppy American IPA, but an Australian-style pale ale is much more in keeping with what the original hops would have been used for.
Drinking beer which is made from green flowers which you picked yourself is absurdly satisfying. When I started this I thought that the idea of moving beyond kit brewing was overkill: I’m not going to start malting my own grain, but I’m a lot more confident about making up recipes and boiling now.
(I get my kit and ingredients from The Hop and Grain in Marrickville, who are very friendly and helpful despite the fact that I can’t grow a beard.)
POSTSCRIPT: on drinking a few of these I’ve found that it’s not very alcoholic. This is what the OG/FG calculations predicted – they estimated about 2.5% – at the time, I thought this might have been due to error measuring the OG. I think either fermentation got stuck, or the original wort just didn’t have enough available sugar for some reason. It carbonated properly, so there was still live yeast when I bottled it. Perhaps my assumption that one tin of malt extract + 1Kg DME toppped up to 23L would be roughly equivalent in available sugar to a kit was incorrect? Any experienced home brewers with advice, leave a comment. The OG reading was 1.030 and the final gravity was 1.011.
POST-POSTSCRIPT: after consultation with my brother-in-law and a few web searches, I think my DME theory is correct: it has less available sugar for fermentation than the same weight of dextrose. The only other time I’ve used it, it was in a kit which specifically asked for DME and was I suppose designed with that in mind because the resulting IPA was at least 6% ABV. I’m going to try this recipe again with a mix of DME and dextrose: I haven’t got the same quantity of Peter’s hops left but I’ll use what I’ve got plus some Galaxy or another good aroma variety, and see how I go. Science!