The problem with learning curves is that you never know when rise will give way to plateau.
I can think of at least a half-dozen hobbies that I’ve passionately pursued for a wee-while, but then abandoned because it was taking far too long for Hard to turn to Easy. Karate, squash, golf, guitar; all of them fell by the way-side, because I’m a lazy prick who gets annoyed when he’s not instantly awesome at something. In a nutshell, when the going gets tough, Jase gets going.
Out the door. Into his car.
So given my rubbish stickability, it’s with oodles of self-satisfaction (and a great steaming bowl of Thank F*ck) that I report the flattening of this particular hobby’s learning curve.
That’s right: the second Best Bitter brew day was an effortless success. Valves did what valves are supposed to do, by allowing liquid to move through them; bungs in hot liquor tanks remained plugged; and – most importantly – the blood pressure of the novice brewer remained stable, even when minor niggles threatened the mood. It was like something just clicked – as if I was Neo, staring at The Matrix and finally seeing through the code.
Aside from randomness – the oft-forgotten reason for damn-near everything – the effortlessness with which the brew day progressed can be attributed to two factors: first, sheer accumulated experience; and second, some much-needed knowledge-gap-filling, courtesy of the latest addition to my bedside table.
About ten minutes into flicking-through my new favourite book (which was a Father’s Day present, making me the luckiest Dad in existence), I stumbled across a section on malt – in particular, how each type of malt can be used most efficaciously. Scanning the text, it slowly dawned that the original Best Bitter Debacle had not been the random mishap that I’d thought it was – but rather the result of general dumbarseary, combined with a specific lack of understanding about the difference between base malt and specialty malt.
For the similarly-afflicted, here’s a Ten-Cent tour: as far as I can make out, base malt is the grain that has been tricked (by clever maltsters) into thinking that it’s springtime – at which point the grain produce the enzymes required to help it grow from seed to plant. It’s at that point that the clever maltsters stop the conversion process in its tracks, leaving the starch in the grain ready to be converted into fermentable sugar by thirsty brewers. Put simply (and thus probably wrongly), the more sugar available for fermentation, the more efficacious the base malt – since without fermentables, we’d just be producing utterly-undrinkable brown water.
On the other hand, speciality malt – of which there are endless kinds – differs from base malt in a number of respects; but of most importance for this story is the differing availability of fermentable sugars. Generally-speaking, the purpose of specialty malt is not to provide the fermentables, but rather to add colour, complexity and depth to our brew.
Knowing all this, it’s easy to understand why base malt generally comprises the vast majority of the grain ‘bill’ in a given recipe – with specialty malt added somewhat-sparingly, and usually for a well-thought-out reason. In the case of the first Best Bitter recipe, Caramalt should only really have made up 5-10% of the total malt bill; instead, I went with 100%.
Knowing what I know now, the v1.0 f*ck-up was inevitable. I didn’t actually stand a chance, because there was never going to be enough fermentable sugars available to make anything resembling beer. The game was over before it had even begun.
In retrospect, the f*ck-up was the result of a relatively simple (and almost certainly common) personality fault: namely, my reticence to seek help from others, no matter how green my horn. I’d rather start at the bottom rung and teach myself to climb than ask my neighbour to borrow their scissor lift – and it’s this quirk that led to the Best Bitter Debacle. Novice muppets (such as I) really must admit that we need help finding our feet – and the sooner we do, the less heartache we’ll endure.
To that end, I have – for the moment – moved-away from ordering my brewing ingredients online, instead grabbing the stuff I need in-person at my local bricks-and-mortar homebrew shop. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not (even for a second) suggesting that there isn’t a place for online ordering (because there is), nor that support and advice isn’t available from our excellent array of online retailers (because it is); I’m just suggesting that, at least for now, there’s something to be said for having a yak to a specialist about my recipe before he grinds-up my grain.
I’ll tell you one thing for certain: there’s simply no way any homebrew store worth their salt would have let me walk out the door with five kilos of Caramalt without at least asking what the f*ck I planned to do with it. I would have saved a lot of heartache, stress and time if I’d just had the courage to seek help in the first instance – rather than waiting until I’d f*cked-up.
But such is life – and if we’re truthful, I’m fairly sure none of us can claim purity in this regard.
Via a wibbly-lined segue, we return to the present: where, due to a quirk of chronology, Brew Hui Best Bitter v2.0 is already proudly-bottled, hungrily-priming and conditioning-away into a perfect summer quaffer. Fermentation went off without a hitch, as did bottling; and after a sneaky taste, I’m proud to report that it’s exactly what I was hoping for. A voluptuous malt body, with a hint of earthy Fuggles and a dash of lingering bitterness: perfect. I may well be delusional, but it reminds me of something I’d sip at Galbraith’s – and as such, I’m tickled fifty shades of pink.
I can tell right now that Bitter is a style I’ll return to again and again. It’s just so damn simple; a couple of types of grain (don’t forget the base malt), a few low-Alpha hops, and a sprinkling of English Ale yeast. In a romantic sense, it’s the way that beer should be: not too this, or too that – just straight-forward, honest and uncomplicated.
Traits desirable of any life-long companion.
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