Brewing my own beer is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Particularly for a beer aficionado living in China, it’s a real temptation. On this side of the world there just isn’t much of a beer culture. People drink to get drunk, but they don’t care about the taste, so finding a nice beer can be a challenge.
In recent years the situation has improved somewhat, and there is now a small craft brewing scene, but that largely extends to the big cities. Out in the sticks, where I live, good beers are few and far between. You can buy some imported European beers at many supermarkets, but they’re not particularly good. In order to find a nice beer you need to visit a big city, where there are expat populations and Chinese people with more international tastes.
Fortunately, China is home to an amazing shopping platform called Taobao, which pretty much sells everything you could want. Enterprising merchants capitalize on any upcoming trend, and so even home brewing equipment can be bought. I spent a while researching and translating and then rounded up the materials on Taobao for a mere 800rmb ($118).
A few days later, the equipment arrived at my house. I have a friend in Hefei who has his own beer factory and he took the train to Huainan with some grains, hops, and yeast, to show me how it’s done. We spent an evening brewing an unusual amber ale-IPA hybrid beer that was to be Huainan’s inaugural homebrew.
3.5kg German Vienna
1.5kg German CaraRed
1kg Belgian Aromatic
Safbrew Wheat Beer Yeast
Making beer with a self-assembled kit is always going to be an adventure, especially when none of the component parts were ever intended for brewing beer. However, after six hours it appeared to be a success. Finally, we had about five gallons of beer sitting in the fermentation bucket, and I was tasked with the unenviable job of sitting and watching it bubble away for the next month, knowing that I couldn’t open it no matter how good it smelled.
After waiting for a month, I had to bottle the beer myself. My friend from Hefei wasn’t here to help me and I was paranoid about the beer getting infected. Thankfully, though, I read online that because the beer is now alcoholic, the chance of infection has been significantly reduced. Still, I dutifully set about disinfecting everything – a process that somehow took me several hours.
For this step, I had bought 50 bottles. These 300ml brown beer bottles cost 1.6rmb ($0.24) each, including shipping, and arrived within a day and a half of ordering. Taobao has become my favourite app.
The bottling process went pretty well, as I syphoned the beer from the fermentation bucket back into the big metal brew pot, which had a tap on the side. However, below the tap line I had to syphon into the bottles, and lost about a bottle’s worth of beer due to spillage. It turns out that syphoning manually is not as easy as it looks.
While bottling, I took a half pint for sampling purposes and was surprised to find that my beer tasted like a chocolate stout – that was very unexpected because its ingredients suggested an amber/IPA. Anyway, it had only just emerged from the fermentation pot and still had a month to go in the bottles. I knew its taste at this point wouldn’t be particularly close to the finished version.
I got 46 bottles of beer in the end, and stored them in a big cardboard box. However, the temptation to drink them was hard to resist… I knew I should leave them in the bottle at least a few weeks before drinking, but it’s hard to sit and look at so many bottles of beer and not have the occasional sample.
After exactly one week, I had a friend over and we opened one bottle to sample it – for scientific purposes, of course. After all, a brewer needs to know what’s going on in the bottles.
The beer tasted very sweet at first, with a rather sour aftertaste. It bore little resemblance to the pre-bottled “chocolate stout” flavor – although perhaps that might relate to this beer having been refrigerated, while the first sampling had been at room temperature.
It was not particularly hoppy to the tongue, although it certainly smelled like an IPA. The colour was still incredibly dark, although it had lightened ever so slightly.
The taste changed yet again. The slight chocolatey taste returned, but the sweetness, perhaps paradoxically, had abated. The hops were now coming into play and the sour aftertaste had vanished. It was rounding out as a decent IPA, albeit it had some quirks that gave away its hybrid nature. The colour was still very dark, making it look almost like a porter.
I declare this first experiment with homebrewing to have been a success… although I admit that I did have a professional guiding me through the actual brewing part of the process. Given that the beer is technically part amber ale, and that it will be ready for drinking come early November (that will be the three week mark), I’ve decided to call it Novamber Ale. I mocked up a label on Photoshop, although I don’t think the beer will even sit in the bottles long enough to print them off.
In any case, I’m happy with how this beer turned out and very eager to get started on a new beer that will be brewed 100% by me. I’m going to Hefei to pick up some ingredients next weekend, and hopefully will have a new beer to sample near Christmas.