Saturday, September 22, 2012

Brewing "The White House Honey Ale"

Beekeeping got a big bump after the Obamas installed beehives at the White House a couple years ago.  Recently word got out that the President had purchased beer making equipment and instructed his chefs to brew up ales incorporating honey.  The clamor from the wonky home brewing community for the recipes actually made national news.  Bowing to the "pressure," the White House staff posted a video and two recipes on their website.

As the resident brewer here at SteffesWood Apiary, I was assigned to test the Executive Branch's effort.  The Honey Ale is roughly equivalent to a British ESB (Extra Special Bitter), a full bodied amber beer with a 7% alcohol content.

New to brewing?  If you can make soup, you can brew beer, though you'll obviously require some specialized equipment that will run you $100-150.  A good tutorial on basic technique can be found at How to Brew.  Beginner's kits and ingredients can be purchased in the Pittsburgh area at one of South Hills Brewing's locations.  There are plenty of on-line sources available as well, including Northern Brewer Home Brew Supply, which has already put together an ingredients kit.
Here is the recipe from the White House website:

And here is how I brewed it:
All the ingredients
1.  A 3 gallon pot is MINIMUM. Bigger is better.  Boil overs are common if you are not careful. You don't need to use "sterile water" as the heat will do that. If you like the taste of your tap water, use that or bottled spring water. The crushed grains are steeped in a grain or hops bag.just like tea.  They add color and flavor but be careful not to overheat, steep too long or squeeze the bag dry.  Doing so can impart an unpleasant astringency from the tannins in the hulls.  Just like tea!
2.  Malt extract in both its forms is used.  You can add both now or just the dry stuff and add the liquid 15 minutes before the end of the boil.  Be careful to stir the liquid extract enough when added to put it in solution or it will burn on the bottom.
Steeping the grains
3.  The Kent Goldings hops are added when the boil starts. 45 minutes is the minimum time for the hops to give the brew (called "wort" at this stage)  enough bitterness to balance the malt.  The cooks screwed up here as they neglected to say when 1 oz. of the Fuggles hops gets added, so we're winging it already.  I added that errant ounce 10 minutes after the Goldings, figuring the ample fermentables in the recipe could use the extra balancing.  The Northern Brewer kit calls for the 1 oz. Fuggles addition at 15 minutes before the end of the boil.  The gypsum is used to harden and acidify the wort with the aim of "Burtonizing" the water.  This refers to the water used to brew Bass Ale, at Burton-on-Trent.  If your water is already hard, it is unnecessary.  I split the difference and used just 1 oz.
 A word of warning: don't let the pot out of your sight during the boil if you want to avoid a sticky mess on your stove!  Don't ask me how I know this!  Stir frequently.
plug hops (left) and leaf hops (right)
4.  The last 1/2 oz. of the Fuggles are added at the end of the boil to give the ale aroma and flavor without extra bitterness.  Note that I used leaf and plug hops in the grain/hops bag.  If you use pellets, you just leave them in the wort.
5.  I added the honey with the Fuggles as I wanted to preserve the delicate aromatics of that fine SteffesWood honey as much as possible.  My experience with brewing is that honey does not contain any microbes that will spoil the beer so it doesn't need to be sterilized.
cooling wort in ice bath

6.  You want to cool the wort as rapidly as possible down to the temp you can safely add yeast, about 80 degrees F.  I put the pot in an ice bath in the sink, then pour the cooled wort into the fermenter with enough chilled spring water to bring the volume up to 5 gallons.
pitching the yeast

7.  The recipe calls for Windsor dry yeast, a typical English ale yeast that will impart a fruity taste to the end product.  I used Safale S-04, a similar product.  All you need to do to "pitch" the yeast is make sure the wort is not too hot, sprinkle it in, close the lid (and block the airlock hole) and give the bucket a good shaking.  The yeast is aerobic and needs to have air incorporated in the wort to do its work of breaking the sugars down into CO2 and alcohol. Fit the airlock and open up a beer to celebrate all your hard work.
8.  I ferment in the basement, where the temperature is a constant 68 degrees.  Ale yeast is pretty flexible and will work well over a wide range.  
9.  You don't need to use a secondary fermenter, though I often do.  You can leave it in the same bucket for a couple weeks until there is just one bubble a minute coming out of the airlock.  If you have a hydrometer, the beer is fermented out when the final gravity is 1.020 ( the starting gravity is about 1.060)
bubbling away!
   10.  We'll pick up the narrative when it's bottling time in about two weeks, so stay tuned!

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