July 5, 2011

The Haphazard Brewing of Free Kick EPA

*** This blog post was recently uncovered deep from within scattered brewer's notes. It's timeliness has been lost, but its moral fortitude has not. We begin in late April 2011. ***

Let me tell you about what may be the best homebrew ever brewed. Or it may be a total disaster. We’ll just have to wait and see.

This beer -- Free Kick EPA -- was born on the sidelines of a below-freezing outdoor soccer tournament, the wort chilled in a pile of snow, its yeast pitched with an amused sense of panic. Co-brewer Garth Blomberg (one of Northern Brewer’s graphic design ninjas) jokes that this is the Rudy of homebrews: a small beer that had the odds stacked against him. But he fought the good fight and held on tight to his dream - to become a real player.

My name is Chip Walton, video projects producer for Northern Brewer. As part of our jobs at Northern Brewer, we often have the chance of taking part in promotional and/or NB-sponsored events, talking with the public about the joys of homebrewing. More often than not, this means brewing a demonstration batch and serving homebrewed goodness from picnic taps or a jockey box. (I know, I know. It’s a crappy job, but someone has to do it.) Last weekend was just such a weekend.

One of our fearless leaders, Jake Keeler (NB Marketing/Creative Director, Brewing TV co-host, soccer player) asked for a volunteer for the SOB Cup, a day-long soccer tournament being held in St. Paul, MN. Good ol’ Garth volunteered to solo-brew a batch of beer and serve beer. Not one to leave a fellow soldier marching into battle alone, I decided to head out to the soccer field and help Garth with the demonstration. I arrived to find Garth had already added the malt extract to the kettle for a Northern Brewer Extra Pale Ale recipe kit and was about to hit a boil.

The first thing this beer had going against it was the weather. It was a cold day made even more bitter by a strong wind that threatened to kick the flame out on the propane burner. Brewing outside in an area not well-known to you instantly brings up a few questions: Where is our water source? Are there any hoses? How are we going to mix up some sanitizer? (Ha! I brought a 5-gallon bucket with prepared sanitizer -- boom goes the dynamite!) Where are the restrooms? All jokes aside, we were a little out out of our element.

Boil achieved. 60-minute addition of two ounces of Cascade pellet hops. Easy enough. Garth and I made sure the boil was under control then returned to the jockey box to serve the soccer players and their friends a Dry-Hopped Amber Ale, a malty German Altbier and a luscious Brown Ale so substantial it could make up for missing breakfast and lunch.

Note: Two dudes serving free beer = awesome heroes.

The only “official” addition left for the recipe kit was a one-ounce addition of Cascade pellet hops at 1-minute. Irish moss at 15-minutes - what Irish moss? Yeast nutrient at 10-minutes - what yeast nutrient? We forgot all that jazz. I laugh and cringe looking back at it. We also had a couple of handfuls of backyard hops from a friendly source. We decided to put them in at flame-out and let them hang out while the wort chilled. Only - we didn’t have a muslin bag. Not a proper one anyway. However, I had one that had the “sealed” end cut off to wrap around an auto-siphon a while back. So... we tied a knot in one end, toss in the hops and tied a know on the other end. The thing looked like it would explode! Like a hop softball. We toss it in dunked it a dozen or so times.

Now, the really tricky part: chilling the wort. We didn’t have an easily accessible hose for the wort chiller that Jake brought. So, we thought we’d be good Upper Midwest boys and chill it in a pile of snow. It snowed that morning (yes, in mid-April!) and the soccer players had shoveled the entire field onto the sideline area. We drop the kettle in the snow and piled and packed snow around it. Sadly, though, this didn’t do much. Over the course of a half-hour, the wort dropped from 200F to 160F. We needed/wanted to get this going a lot quicker. After picking our brains, I had this idea: Let’s pour the wort back-and-forth between two sanitized buckets. This would cool the wort as it passed through the cool air between buckets AND it would aerate the wort.

We did just that. Transferred the wort between buckets about a dozen times. This cooled it down to about 120F. Still very hot, but at this point we were just ready to get the wort in a fermenter. We poured the four gallons of post-boil wort into a six-gallon carboy and topped off with cold water. This brought the temperature down to about 75-80F. What the heck?! We pitched the yeast and gave the carboy one last shake.

Mission accomplished.

I loaded the carboy in my car. We went back to serving beer for a while before turning the table over to another group of volunteers.

Back at home, I took an original gravity reading - 1.034 (8.75 BRIX). Hilarious. We didn’t take into account that we were topping off the beer with almost an extra gallon of water. The wort was a nice color and pleasantly bitter pre-fermentation. Less than 12 hours later, the Free Kick EPA was bubbling away quite nicely. Whew! Not only was it bubbling, it had a very active fermentation that next day so I switched it over to a blow-off tube to help vent some of the foam.

To add to the list of factors that could end up making this the most awesome beer EVER (or making it absolutely dreadful), I added approx. 1.5 lbs. of orange blossom honey into the carboy. My hope is that the honey will not only add some sweetness to the beer, but will also supply extra sugar to boost the alcohol.

Two days later, Free Kick is still kickin’! I’m pretty excited about this beer. It’s a hodge-podge of ideas, a conglomerate of effort and intensity, born out of a random day near the pitch and brewed in sight of curious onlookers and friendly homebrewers who warmed us with words of encouragement.

Updates and tasting notes to follow? Maybe.

*** Fast forward to late May 2011 ***

The Free Kick EPA was kegged and passed back to Jake Keeler for serving at another SOB event. But he was cool enough to hook Garth and I up with a growler for the sake of tasting the end result and giving some tasting notes. First off, I will say this: this was not the worst beer in the world. Awesome!

I lost my notes (Again?! This blog has about as much hope of surviving as this beer!). So check out Garth's tasting notes and accept them as a joint effort:
"Right away the hops come flying in like Jake Keeler kicked a soccer ball of Cascade hops in my mouth. Boom! Oh yeah, the nose, a big flame out of random homegrown hops from Mr. Dawson transplants you a hop field….PFFFFF. It's hop stinky with sweet honey and malt aromas. Overall not too syrupy or sticky, it drinks clean. A surprisingly good-tasting beer considering the adversities it faced being made. A true homebrew people!"


  1. what's homebrewing without some adventure? well done, sir! .... and boom goes the dynamite! hahaha

  2. I'm seeing something with this. Adventure Brewing Brothers? Two NB knuckleheads equipped only with a few necessities dropped off in weird surroundings (like a soccer tournament) and forced to brew with what they have.

  3. Yes! We need to have a BTV brewing challenge! Pit Dawson and Jake against Garth and Chip in a brewing obstacle course, with bizarre ingredients, weird locations, and lots of beer.

  4. Sounds like a new network show... Extreme brewers! Awesome story!

  5. I have yet to have an brewday that I didnt need to make up some step in the process. Great cooling idea. one I hope to never need to use