That Time We Made Beetroot Beer

Brewing Beer in the Backyard

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is about time I introduced you to Wade. Wade has had the misfortune of being my friend for some time. As a result we have the kind of relationship which has transcended civility to become totally and utterly honest. Suffice to say, when it comes to all things Wade, I am a huge fan.

Even his color coordination is faultless

Wade has this remarkable talent. His hobby is collecting hobbies. Knife making? Done that. Woodwork? Please. Leatherwork? He has a room for that kind of thing. The list goes on…

However, today is a special day as I will be privy to one of Wade’s more recent pursuits – the deeply wonderful and unsubtle art of beer brewing.

Not just any beer mind, we are making beet beer. Yes, it is precisely the kind of thing that looks like it would be flooding the elevator shaft of the Overlook Hotel. This beer will be more red than the communist manifesto. Drinking it will cause more urinary confusion than asparagus. I am very excited.

Somewhere in this article, were you to look closely, there will be a recipe for beet beer. However, I prefer to think of this piece as a testament to how Saturday mornings should be spent as supposed to in front of the TV.

This is the big point: I am done. I am so unequivocally tired of swapping notes on series and movies. There is a life out there worth living and the wrong mentality is to believe life happens outside of the home. So my new adventure, or adventures, is the simple pursuit of learning. I want to experience the things that take up my precious time constructively. I have decided to swap consumption for creation. Enough is enough is enough, and this is where I am going to start…

I arrived armed with the ingredients for breakfast tucked under one arm. Cherry tomatoes, beer bread, eggs and fillet. The beer bread felt thematically correct. Wade unlocked the gate and charged back inside on account of his child needing changing. I do not own a child and do not know how regularly their oil needs to be changed. I did not know they had that many gears.

This is a terrible joke but I am not sorry.

Wade appeared with a well bundled baby and the two of us pottered around the kitchen for a while.

Allow me to set the scene: it is a cold day in July. Hillcrest, the suburb of Durban known for not being poor, is currently being buffeted by chilly winds.

Wade is in shorts and a T-shirt because he is made out of aged birch and full-cream organic butter.

I quickly knocked up breakfast as Wade put Aisling to sleep. She is a dear thing and the only infant I have met that behaves so damn well. To say she is an easy child would be an understatement, but knowing her parents puts this quickly into perspective. Some of you are probably wondering if a mother was involved in the creation of Aisling. I am happy to report that among Wade’s many talents; parthenogenesis is not one of them. His lovely wife has taken the morning “off” to attend an infant first aid course. Of course, nobody believes Wade can be left alone with his own daughter and as a result the first half hour of my visit is punctuated by Wade fielding phone calls and messages from the paranoid public. It is not like he is her father or anything.

With breakfast slung down our throats, Aisling safely asleep and two cups of coffee circulating our systems, we began.

Have you ever met pregnant woman? A lot of people tend to say things like “you are glowing” or “you look radiant” or in the case of some poorly chosen words by yours truly “you look positively tumescent.” Lauren, if you are reading this, I am so sorry. Well, the moment we began the brewing process, Wade’s aspect took on this incandescence. His enthusiasm for what we were about to do was palpable.

First, the malted barley was soaked in water at 72c.  The distinction between malted barley and the store  bought variety is that it has been soaked in water at about 15c for an hour and allowed to germinate. This starts to convert the starch in the grain into maltase, a type of sugar. Taking this now malted barley and soaking it in 72c water activates enzymes in the barley called alpha and beta amylase. These are responsible for converting the malt sugar in the barley into simple sugars which the yeast can ferment. Yeast cannot ferment all sugars with the general rule being the simpler the sugar the better. Simple sugars just mean short chain sugars. The simpler the sugar the faster the yeast can ferment it. We were heathens and used tap water as supposed to the types of water more snobbish brewers use. Traditionally these back-yard purists with their open toed sandals and bad hair use water with all sorts of chemicals added to get a more accurate water chemistry. For the purposes of back yard brewing, tap water is fine.

We decided to soak the malted barley for an hour or so. This process is referred to as “mash in the bag” which sounded a lot like what a director would shout at the end of filming a popular 70’s sitcom set in Korea. The reason Wade gave for the hour-long soak was because of the types of barley we were using. In this case it was Belgian Two Row Pale Malt – this is the base malt that most South African beers are made from. It has very little complexity but a lot of accessible sugars. This is a good thing. This soak is referred to as the mash.

The reason that we mashed for an hour was that the temperatures activate the enzymes in the malt. What this meant to us was those enzymes are able to break down the sugars from the complex into the simple that the yeast can eat. This is the same process which occurs to the hands of the Kardashian’s gynecologist.

Having poured in the grains, Wade began to stir to ensure that the wheat was not clumping and the water was evenly distributed. The idea was to maintain the temperature range between 59 and 66c for the next hour. Once this was done, the lid was affixed and the thermal box left alone to think on its sins.

While he loitered in the kitchen, Wade brought through a collection of packets which looked a lot like horse feed from Sainsbury’s. I was informed these were different bags of hops and I was encouraged to smell them. My notes are as follows:

  1. Hallertau Mittelfruh: this is the “noble German Hop” – this is one of the original hops which has been extensively used. This has low bitterness and subtle flavours. Notes of lemon and burnt sugar cane mix well with a slight base of coriander boerewors and street urchin. I would not be surprised if elderly key parties smelt like this.
  2. Southern Passion: despite the name, this is not a euphemism for going down on someone. This is a proudly South African hop which immediately welcomes your nose with the smell of a sweet granadilla sorbet. I stuck my nose in it again and again like a horse with a feed bag.
  3. Huell Melon: this is a citrus hop that is undercut with notes of turpentine, ozone and just a wee bit of cranberry. Basically it is a great proxy for a line of indie-folk rock inspired fragrances where the bottles have little pictures of bear cubs playing in wheat fields.
  4. Magnum: This isn’t a hop, its measurement of dick. Thankfully it doesn’t smell like penis. Despite it being named after Burt Reynolds mustache, this hop is used for bittering and is ideal for our purposes. It will allow the other flavours of the beetroot and ginger to shine through.

Wade glowed from the kitchen as he took out the beetroot. The beetroot was roasted to get rid of the muddy flavours and to bring out some of the caramelized sweetness. From my vantage in the dining room I could smell the ombre odour of the roasted vegetables. These were blended until it was the texture of chunky salsa.

A very important note: when baking the beetroot DO NOT USE ANY KIND OF OIL. This would destroy the head retention of the beer. Basically your beer would not have any foam at all. A fun little side to this is adding wheat to the mash (Wade had added a kilo), as wheat is designed to help with head retention.

We decided to make our beer a Saison, meaning that it would, and I quote, “ferment for anything” and have a hardy “French farm” flavor. This also requires a less strict approach to temperature control. Some of the more precious yeasts require 18 to 20 degrees only.

Wade pointed out this last fact was the reason he owned a chest freezer with a temperature controller.

About half an hour later Wade started boiling water again in order to rinse the grains. This is to get more sugar out. That way, the brew is also starting at a higher temperature which makes it easier to bring to the boil. As soon as the grains are removed, the liquid remaining is called wort. It is from this that the beer is made.

Wade set up his outdoor “office” to prepare for both the sparging and the boil. Sparging is the process of rinsing the soaked grist (the grain which has been soaking), with hot water to extract all available sugars for the fermentation process. We did this rinse a further two times, with the last addition of liquid looking considerably darker than the first. Once this had been done, and the liquid cleared, we then transferred the sweet wort into Wades outdoor kettle. The sweet wort is boiled and given a single hop addition of 16 grams for sixty minutes just as the sweet wort starts boiling. This will give the bitter notes without any of the hop flavor characteristics. We wanted the flavor of the beer to come from the ginger and beetroot.

A note on hops: this is added to beer to preserve it and give the typical bitter flavor of beer. The comparison made was “just like adding salt to biltong” – a way of imparting both longevity and taste.

The hops were added when the sweet wort reached a rolling boil. The foam which had condensed on the top is referred to as the hot break, a good indication as to the protein content of the sweet wort. There seems to be a divided opinion as to whether the hot break should be skimmed off or not. Some swear blind that skimming this errant foam off results in a crisper beer while others maintain that on a blind tasting nobody would be any the wiser. Wade subscribed to this second group.

Roughly forty minutes into the sweet wort boil, we added 150g of ginger and 300 g of the blended beetroot. The entire enterprise assumed a rich passionfruit colour and the odour of the ginger quickly made its presence felt.

While boiling, never cover it completely as this will prevent the hydrogen sulphide from boiling off. The result would be a beer with a sulphorous flavor. Nobody wants to drink eggs.

A note on sanitation: the fermentation process involves creating an environment for microorganisms to thrive. There are specific microorganisms which we want to thrive while fermenting, namely the yeast. However, this does not change the fact that the environment is ideal for small creatures that we expressly do not want. Therefore, it is incredibly important for the equipment which is being used during fermentation to be well sterilized before use.

Wade went to great lengths to ensure that the bucket which fermentation would occur in was more sterile than religious comedy.This was an acid-based cleaning solution with a comfortable ph of 2.

At the eleventh-hour Wade decided to add Irish Moss. This is a coagulant which makes the proteins drop out, yielding a clearer beer.

Once the full hour had expired, Wade made sure the sterilized cooler was planted in the center of the boil. Water was passed through the cooler which dropped the temperature of the boil to about 38 degrees. At this point the pot was placed on a higher table and the contents siphoned into a sterilized bucket through a sieve to catch any unwanted bits of ginger and beetroot. Wade elegantly observed that it looked like baby poo. I elegantly retched at the image. He elegantly laughed.

The bucket was very quickly filled. It was at this point the Saison yeast was added. With the (sterilized) lid attached, the bucket was left to ferment in his temperature-controlled cooler at about 25c. The idea is to leave this to ferment in the bucket for two weeks until bottling. Once bottled, the beers would be left for a further two weeks. Another name for this is “conditioning” and it is the process by which small-batch beers become carbonated.

And in the blink of an eye, four hours had passed.

We had not loitered in front of a screen. At no point was a discussion had about this series, that film or those channels. We had spent a morning being recreationally constructive. There was a deep-seated sense of satisfaction as I pulled out of Wade’s driveway. Two friends had solved the worlds problems without having to sit on their arses. I find myself hunched over my keyboard thinking how best to baptize the opening of the first few bottles of Beet Beer. Another activity perhaps? Another joint venture with a close friend where the outcome is not nearly as important as its creation?

We will see.

One thought on “That Time We Made Beetroot Beer

  1. “This beer will be more red than the communist manifesto. Drinking it will cause more urinary confusion than asparagus. I am very excited”

    As amusing as it is educational.
    Love it.


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