It’s been long enough since this beer was brewed that I can, despite its many tribulations, declare it a success. In fact, I will go so far as to say that it is my favorite of the beers that I’ve brewed, and, indeed, better than most of the beers that you can buy outside of a specialty beer store–though that is mostly because it’s hard to get a good stout ’round these parts. That, and the bit of mystery surrounding it.
This beer is the product of another malt extract kit from Northern Brewer: the Milk Chocolate Stout. For the uninitiated, I’ll describe a stout as “the darkest kind of beer”–think Guinness. The “milk” part of this comes in the addition of lactose (milk) sugar to the boil, which is left (mostly) unfermented by the beer yeast (Wyeast 1332 Northwest Ale in this case), which results in “residual body and sweetness”–and I will testify that this is definitely noticeable in the end product. The “chocolate” part comes from cacao nibs added to the secondary fermentation–and this, alas, was somewhat less noticeable in the beer.
The folks at Northern Brewer will do a much better job with the instructions than I will, so I will only briefly outline my procedure, and focus mainly on the aforementioned tribulations. I had the Wyeast smack-pack for a yeast starter (get it started the day before so the yeast colony is alive and bubbling by the time you pitch), and did a two-stage fermentation (which involved some shuffling with the two carboys of wine also present in the brewing closet at the moment). The cacao nibs were added to the secondary fermentation, but they floated to the top–I’m not sure if this actually reduced the extraction of chocolate flavors but I doubt it helped. I’ve read that some prefer to make an extract by leaving the nibs to soak in vodka during primary fermentation, which is then added to the secondary fermenter instead of the raw nibs.
Bottling this batch was quite… exciting. The first problem was that, due to a misunderstanding on my part, too much priming sugar was added. The second problem was that I bottled before the gravity had completely finished dropping (I think). The third problem was that there was no efficient way to remove the nibs from the carboy prior to bottling, resulting in nibs blocking the bottle filler. Repeated cleanings of the bottle filler meant that far too much air was mixed with the beer at bottling. Fortunately, this did not end up making the beer taste stale. Unfortunately, this resulted in the beer being severely overcarbonated. No bottle bombs, but it does require the drinker to pour the beer immediately into a beer mug after opening (as in, within five seconds of opening). And don’t even think about shaking the bottles.
There is a final piece of this brew that I’d like to share, and that concerns my efforts to make part of this batch (about a six pack) non-alcoholic–and it ended up being quite mysterious and to this day I have no explanation for it. I looked around online, and while there was very little information about removing alcohol from homebrew, the general consensus was: “Well, I guess you could try boiling it.” So this is what I did. Distillers, I remember learning from a particularly amusing high school chemistry teacher, boil their product (recondensing the alcohol-laden vapors) and monitor the progress via the solution’s temperature. So I did the same, and that helped me none at all. Turns out that the boiling temperature of a 5-10% ethanol + other stuff solution is basically the same as plain water, and it doesn’t really change much as you boil it. So I stopped after boiling it for about 20 minutes, by which point the volume had reduced by about 20%. I don’t know what fraction of the boiled-off gas was ethanol, but I gather that since pure ethanol has a lower boiling point than water, the boil-off should have been a higher fraction ethanol than the solution. So I’m not sure exactly how much alcohol is remaining, but since the volume reduced by 20%, and presumably the alcohol preferentially boiled off, and only 6% or so of the total volume was alcohol to begin with, I’m going to guess that the remaining beer is significantly less alcoholic than the original. I bottled it, in any event.
And now comes the mysterious part: you’ll notice that I said “I bottled it” without doing anything else. When I talked to a friend in lab, he asked if I added more yeast before bottling, and I immediately slapped my forehead in chagrin. What I understand about yeast is that if you boil it for twenty minutes, you kill it. So, priming sugar or no, I was going to end up with some flat beer. I figured I’d open the beer, add some more yeast (I’ve got spare yeast around for just such an occasion), and let it go for two more weeks in the bottle. And yet–when I opened a bottle of the “non-alcoholic” stuff, it was perfectly carbonated. Not overcarbonated like the main batch, not flat like it should have been, but perfect. And it even tasted great (just like the main batch, in fact).
Now, I don’t pretend to understand what’s happening here. How can yeast survive being boiled for 20 minutes? I’m calling it “the immaculate carbonation”. I’ve been reading a bit of H.P. Lovecraft lately, so I’m tempted to file this under “things mankind was not meant to know”. Maybe we should just leave it at that.