Backyard Homebrew Uncapped

Backyard hops on the vine.

Hops Growing on the Vine

Three years ago I planted four hop vines in my backyard.  I had no experience growing hops, and learned both from the information sent with the rhizome, which is a part of a root from a mature vine, and from reading books and online, that hops can grow fast.  They can gain one to two feet in a day, during their active growing phase.  It also seemed that conditions for growth needed to be just right, not to hot or cool, dry or wet, that southern exposure was ideal, they like slightly acidic soil, and a number of other points which left this first-time hop grower in a cloud.  I set up a post in the yard with thick twine as a structure for the vines to grab as they marched on their way to full flower.  As it turned out, three of my four hop plants died the first year, probably from unrelenting heat and lack of water.  In spite of watering them daily, by evening the surrounding dirt would be dry, and the plants withered.  One hardy vine held on, and made it to the next year.  The next year, I had hopes that the plant would produce, but after a promising early start, it, again, withered, but this time after getting to be about six feet long.

This past summer the conditions were just right.  That, combined with a more developed root system allowed my remaining hop vine, of the cascade variety, to move beyond the beginner vine stage and actually produce hops.  When the first flowers appeared I got very excited, but didn’t want to count my hops yet.  I didn’t have to water much, due to regular rain and humid conditions, which kept the vine growing and healthy.  As the flowers turned to the cones which I would ultimately harvest, the thought of brewing a beer with my own backyard hops looked more and more promising.

The part of the hop cone which is of most importance to brewing is the lupulin gland, a tiny yellowish dot within the cone structure which contains the alpha-acids and oils which give beer both bitterness and hoppy aroma.

Lupulin Glands in a Cascade hop cone.

From Sierra Nevada Beer, a photo of a split Cascade hop cone and the lupulin glands within.

The first documentation of hops used to make beer was in 1079, although there is earlier documentation of hops being grown.  Beer brewers discovered that hops had a preservative effect on the beer, and added pleasing flavors to contrast the sweetness of the barley malt.  Naturally, when a good thing like this is found, it is taxed, and the history of hops used in beer makes for some interesting reading.

Once the hops had matured on the vine, it was time to harvest them.  Again, this took some research to figure out when was the right moment to pluck them.  If they are picked too early, the lupulin glands have not matured, and the aroma imparted will be more grassy than one would like.  So I waited until the hops gave up their familiar scent when crushed, and had an orange/yellow tinge to the gland.  Since I only had one vine, not a whole yard as numerous online demonstrations show, it was relatively simple to cut the hop cones from the vine with scissors.  I collected them in a basket for drying.

Hop cones in a basket.

Hop cones cut from the vine and ready to dry.

Not having any special equipment to dry them, I just left them in the wicker basket and allowed the dry September air do the job.

When thinking about an appropriate recipe for beer made from these hops, I was planning a simple brew which would allow the hop aroma to come through, without competition from any complex flavors or spices.  A friend who is well versed in beer making advised me to use my backyard hops for aroma, but use commercial hops for the bittering, as the home grown will not carry the bitterness very far.

This is the recipe I devised, a simple amber ale style:

Backyard Homebrew

Partial Mash:
American 2-row pale barley malt  4 lbs
Boil:   Volume = 2.5 gal
Amber DME  3 lbs (DME=dried malt extract)
American Crystal 40L  0.5 lbs (a type of malt that adds caramel sweetness and color to the brew)
Honey  1 lb
Cascade (commercial)  1 oz at 60 min
Cascade (homegrown)  1 oz at 5 min

Yeast:  Wyeast 1056 (a versatile yeast used for amber, pale and other ales)

The partial mash was at 157 degrees F for one hour, and then sparged (rinsed) with another gallon of water at 160 degrees.  The boil was one hour, with the commercial hops added at the beginning of the boil, and my backyard hops with five minutes to go.  What looked to me like much more than an ounce of dried hops, when measured on a scale, came out to be just a bit over one ounce.  So I used every hop I picked for aroma at the five minutes-to-go mark. Why the honey, you may ask?  I originally planned to include both honey and molasses, my homage to runners, as this is the basis for home made energy gel, and works pretty well as a source of sugar for the beer.  But at the last minute I decided to drop the molasses, because I did not want the final brew to be very dark in color, but I kept the honey to have enough sugar for the final alcohol content I was predicting, around 5.5%.

Homegrown hops in the boil

Homegrown hops added to the boil for the last five minutes.

After the boil, the cooling, and bringing the volume up to five gallons, the yeast was added and I set the carboy in it’s usual nook at the bottom of the back stairs to ferment.  One little glitch that came up was that once the fermentation takes place, one expects to see bubbling through the air lock, indicating that the yeast are multiplying and metabolizing the sugars, making alcohol and CO2 in the process.  Yet, no bubbles were merrily percolating through the air trap, as was supposed to happen.  I knew the yeast was healthy, since the container it came in puffed up like a puffer fish once the little vial of nutrients inside it was cracked.  I also knew there was plenty of substrate in the form of sugar for the yeast to work on.  So, I let it ride, thinking there must be some leak of a seal around the top of the plastic carboy, and that fermentation was taking place.  It turns out I was right.  The way to check this is to measure the specific gravity of the wort at the start of fermentation and at the end.  If the specific gravity drops appropriately, then fermentation has taken place.  After two weeks in the fermenter, the specific gravity, which started at 1.050, had dropped to 1.006, confirming that fermentation happened.  I then transferred the nascent brew into the secondary fermenter for another two weeks.

Bottling took place on December 1, 2013.  I opted for 22 ounce bottles because I had sufficient clean ones to use, rather than 12 ounce ones.  Bottling consists of adding a measured amount of sugar to the final brew before bottling so that bottle fermentation will provide the right amount of CO2 for carbonation.  Beers served from a tap at a bar have CO2 added from compressed tanks.  Commercial bottled beers in general have CO2 added from a nozzle during bottling, but bottled homebrew is allowed to carbonate naturally in the bottle.  This means a small amount of residual yeast present in the bottle will use the added sugar to produce CO2.  A small amount of alcohol is made in the process, but not enough to change the final alcohol content measurably.  Some commercial beers are also pasteurized and filtered before bottling, so any live yeast are killed.  As Johnny Fincioen from the Global Beer Network points out, the labels which say “born on….” on some commercial beers should really say “died on….” instead, since there is nothing living in these brews.  Many craft brews and microbrews are allowed to “bottle condition” so that the CO2 is provided by living yeast in the bottle.

Two bottles of Backyard Homebrew, open and ready to pour.

Two bottles of Backyard Homebrew, open and ready to pour.

Finally, to the tasting.  While I may be a perfectly good judge of my own beer, and perhaps even a harsher critic than those around me, I turned to the completely unbiased views of my wife, two of my grown children, a good friend from Philadelphia, and a college friend from Boston to provide the judgement.  To a person the reviews were very favorable.  Comments included “wonderful aroma”, “very nice flavor”, and “I would definitely order this in a bar”.  By my own assessment, the beer hit the right note.  It is not complex, but has a very nice color, appropriate for an amber ale.  The aroma of the backyard hops gives a subtle citrus quality to the head, and the flavor is great.  It is not strong, like an IPA, or overpowering, just a pleasing, medium body, with a very slight sweetness of crystal malt.  The final alcohol content was 5.8% ABV.

Frank's Backyard Homebrew in the glass.  Nice head, nice color, very enjoyable going down.

Frank’s Backyard Homebrew in the glass. Nice head, nice color, very enjoyable going down.

With this experience using my home-grown hops, I’ve been encouraged to do it again.  I’d also like to see if I can get a few more hop vines to survive to be productive.  I’ll be looking through the different types of hops available to see which ones might do best in the southern New Jersey environment.  I think I’ll go open a bottle of Frank’s Backyard Homebrew, pour a glass, and do a little research.

Rudolph’s Red Nose Ale, the tasting

For those of you following my blog, you may be aware I put together a Christmas Ale I named “Rudolph’s Red Nose Ale“.  This was a play on words, since I designed it to be a Christmas spiced ale, but with a red tint and styled after Belgian Christmas ales.  It’s not a typical Belgian Red Ale, in that it is not aged in wood, and so doesn’t have the sour characteristic of that style, but it comes fairly close.  The red color comes from a certain type of “crystal” malt, Caramel 80, which gives the beer a slightly sweet flavor and brick red color.  The Belgian Abbey yeast was used to give it a fruity flavor, not too pronounced, but not requiring the actual addition of fruit.  The hops were meant to be in the background, providing bitterness and a bit of aromatic hop flavor, but this is a malty brew and so not meant to taste hoppy like an IPA.  So starting from this:


Partial Mash for Rudolph’s Red Nose Ale

We made it to this:

A Bottle of Rudolph's Red Nose Ale

A Bottle of Rudolph’s Red Nose Ale

The label was cleverly created by my daughter Katie, who seems to have a knack for design.

In the glass:

Glass of Rudolph's Red Nose Ale

Glass of Rudolph’s Red Nose Ale

The pour was very nice, a bit underwhelming for the head, which was thinner than I was expecting.  The final alcohol content was 7.35 % ABV, which is around where I was shooting, and appropriate for a Christmas Ale meant to dull the abrasive edges of family get-togethers.  It has a nice slightly fruity and slightly sweet taste, and the spices are also there but in the background.  Reading further, I could have added spices to the secondary fermentation to make them more pronounced, but alas, didn’t think of this or know I could until after it was already bottled.  It’s part of the learning process.  I like the way the reddish hue comes through.

It got a true test on New Year’s Eve.  A group of about fifteen from my running club went for a late afternoon run, then gathered at my house for a pre-New Year’s Eve celebration.  We had a real fire going in the fireplace, and a warm spinach and feta dip accompanied by thin slices of crusty french bread.  There were clementine oranges and some Manchego cheese.  Many of the gathered runners sampled the Rudolph’s, and reports from this discerning crowd were very favorable.

So now I have a great brew to keep me warm the next couple of months, while I come up with a recipe for a spring beer.


Rudolph’s Red Nose Ale

“To alcohol!  The cause of–and solution to–of all of life’s problems”  Homer Simpson

I did a quick check on Google, asking the question, “Why do runners like beer?”  Not too surprisingly, there are plenty of comments, articles and pseudo-scientific research about how running and beer go together.  There is an entry in a Runner’s World forum asking why runners like Craft (Craft is capitalized in the entry) beers more than the general populace.  This query, posted in March, 2012, got answers ranging from “that’s because runners are snobs” (I’m paraphrasing here), to runners are craft beer fans who like the quality over the Bud/Miller/Coors brews.  There were a few comments on why Michelob Ultra might be marketed to athletes, or at least, to sedentary slugs who see drinking that beer as a first step towards fitness.  Little mention though, at least in the first several pages of hits on Google, on home brewing and running.  So, that’s where I step in.

Last spring I made a beer of my own recipe which I called “Long Run Ale”.  The idea was to make a beer dedicated to my running friends about to run the Boston Marathon.  In order to make it special for runners, I investigated how to make home-made energy gel.  It turned out that two primary ingredients were honey and molasses.  I made the brew as a very hoppy American pale ale, with Cascade and Willamette hops, and honey and molasses as part of the sugar source.  It turned out it was a real hit.  My running friends loved it.

When I wanted to make a Christmas Spiced Ale this winter, I decided to include the “Gu” in the recipe in order to keep it runner oriented.  Not that including honey and molasses makes it sweet.  The yeast convert all the sugar to alcohol and CO2, and the honey and molasses add to the color and impart a bit of flavor.  This is my version of a Christmas or Winter seasonal ale.  It is a partial mash recipe, which means part of the sugar for fermenting comes directly from steeped grains, and partly from malt extract.

Partial Mash:

  • Belgian 2-Row Pale Malt  5 lbs.
  • Caramel 80    0.5 lbs. (for the red color)

Boil 60 minutes

  • Grain extract from partial mash
  • Amber Dry Malt Extract   4 lbs
  • Honey  1 lb
  • Molasses  0.5 lbs
  • Spices:  Nutmeg, Ginger and Clove (I intended to use Allspice, too, but the stores were all out, every one I tried).


  • Centennial                0.5 oz. at 60 min.
  • Northern Brewer     0.5 oz. at 30 min.
  • Sterling                      0.5 oz. at 10 min.

Yeast:  Wyeast 1214 Belgian Abbey

The first step in the brewing is the partial mash. The crushed Belgian 2-Row malt and the Crystal malt are put in a nylon bag and suspended in water heated to 154 degrees Fahrenheit. This extracts the sugar from the crushed grain, dissolving it in the water. The grain is then sparged (rinsed) a couple of times with hot water to extract as much sugar as possible. The grains are then discarded, although they can be saved and used as an addition to bread, for animal feed, or as mulch.

Malted crushed barley

Combined and crushed malted barley and caramel 80 grains.

Partial Mash

The crushed grains being steeped in 154º F water for one hour.








The sweet liquid which is left is called the wort, not yet beer, but that is its destiny.  Water is added to bring the volume to about 2.5 gallons, and the wort is brought to a boil.  The additional malt extract, which is sugar extracted from malted grain, just like in the mash, above, but prepared and pre-packaged either in liquid (LME) or dry (DME) form, is added to the boil.  Now, all the wort needs is the hops.  Hops are a wonderful aromatic flower which grows on vines, and add bitterness and aroma to beer.  Hops added early in the boil are the bittering hops, in the middle, flavoring, and those added at the end are the aromatic hops.

Wort on the stove.

The wort is boiled and the hops added according to a time schedule.

Once the boil is finished, the wort must be cooled to approximately 70 degrees F as quickly as possible.  There is equipment for this, but I use a very basic method known as putting the brew pot in the sink and swirling cold water around it.  It takes about 30 minutes to bring the temperature down this way.

Brew pot being cooled with cold water.

At the end of the boil, the wort is chilled as quickly as possible to 70ºF.

After the wort is chilled to room temperature, it is ready to pour in to the fermenter.  This is done fairly vigorously, to aerate the wort in preparation for the yeast.  Water is added to bring the volume up to five gallons, and the mix is again aerated to supply oxygen.  Also, a measurement of the specific gravity of the wort is taken, which will be used later to estimate the percent alcohol in the beer.  For this recipe, the O.G. (original gravity) was 1.066.

Package of yeast

The yeast comes packaged with nutrients, and is activated before adding to the fermenter.

Then comes the almost ceremonial “pitching” of the yeast.  This is truly how the magic happens.  In the days before the microscope, beer was made with barley, water and hops (or other spices before hops were used).  The yeast was there, but no one knew it.  Then, Louis Pasteur discovered what was happening at the microbe level.  Now, we have the remarkable choice of numerous strains of yeast, each with their own behavior, which is how beers get certain fruity, spicy or caramel flavors, achieve higher alcohol levels if provided enough sugar from the malt, and may also contribute undesirable flavors.  I chose this particular yeast because it is often used for Belgian style spiced seasonal ales.  Once the yeast is pitched in, the fermenter carboy is sealed with a lid with an escape airlock.  As the yeast go to work, producing alcohol, carbon dioxide is also created which is released through the airlock.  It takes a day or so for the yeast to start converting the sugar to alcohol, and there is nothing more satisfying at this stage than seeing the bubbles merrily making their way through the air lock.  Ales are fermented between 65 and 75 degrees F.  Lagers are fermented at lower temperatures (45-55 degrees F) for longer times (weeks to months) using yeast which are active at those temperatures.


The fermenter, with lid on and airlock up and ready.

There’s nothing left to do at this point except wait for those marvelous little yeasts to do their job.  After about a week, the beer is transferred, this time with a siphon to prevent aeration, to a secondary fermenter.  The first week is for the major conversion of sugar to alcohol.  The secondary phase is for conditioning, when the yeast are still active, but taking on more complex sugars and initial byproducts of fermentation.

After another week or two in the secondary fermenter, the beer is ready to be bottled.  Bottling day can be busy.  One needs all the bottles cleaned, sterilized and ready to go.  The bottling equipment, including a bottling carboy, siphon and tubing, bottle filler and tubing, and bottle caps all need sterilizing.  I find the first step in this process is to pour a homebrew from the last batch, and then set about tackling all these steps.

Bottle of beer and glass.

A bottle of my last brew, a German Hefeweizen.


Nice head, nice color, this should augment the bottling day activities nicely.

Bottling is best done with a helper.  It is possible to do it by yourself, but a whole lot tougher, and it is not easy to keep all those parts I mentioned clean and sterile without an extra pair of hands.

The beer is decanted into the carboy used for bottling, which has a spigot at the bottom, and doesn’t require a lid.  Priming sugar, which has been dissolved in boiling water to sterilize it, then cooled, is added to the mix.  This provides the additional amount of sugar needed to allow carbonation to occur in the bottle.  The yeast are still there, and will convert this small amount of sugar to additional alcohol and carbon dioxide, not enough to change the alcohol content significantly, and just enough to provide carbonation in the sealed bottle.  Many tales of exploding bottles are told by home brewers of their early attempts at getting this right.  The amount of sugar needed is readily available in homebrewing books and online.  A final gravity (F.G.) measurement is taken, with my brew having a F.G. of 1.010, which indicates the yeast did their job.  This should be about 7.3 percent A.B.V.   The spigot is then opened and the bottling begins.

Filling the bottles

Filling the bottles takes a bit of concentration and assistance.

Finally, the bottles need to be capped.  My son and I worked together on this, with him holding the bottles so they wouldn’t tilt, and with me working the capping device.

Bottle capping.

Capping the bottles.

The yield from five gallons of beer is about 50 twelve ounce bottles, plus or minus a bottle.  We eked out forty eight and three quarters.  The beer is now ready to be bottle conditioned, which means storing it in the cellar for about four weeks.

Two cases of beer.

The beer is in the bottles, and they are capped and ready to go to the cellar.


On the shelf in the basement, they will sit and condition, adding flavor and carbonation over the next several weeks.








At this stage I just need to forget they are down in the cellar, and let the weeks roll by.  While I can get an idea of how the finished product will taste, from various whiffs and sips of the dregs, I won’t really know the outcome until it is ready to drink.  We’ll probably uncap a bottle at Christmas time, since the family will be around, but it will be a bit early yet.  Also, higher alcohol beers like this can use a much longer bottle conditioning time before they reach their best flavor, mouth feel and overall presentation.  It is mentioned, the time a homebrew is ready to drink is when you are opening the last remaining bottle from the batch.

Is beer good for runners?  That’s not an easy question to answer.  I do believe in the relaxing and socializing qualities of beer, and nearly all of my running friends like it.  It turns out Ben Franklin was speaking of wine, not beer, in the quote attributed to him about how god loves us and wants us to be happy, but it applies to beer, too.   Pro-temperance zealots have their own reasons for disliking all alcohol, and some trainers will come out strongly against it for their athletes.  On the other hand, there is tremendous support in the running community for beer.  It’s freely distributed at the end of many marathons.  The international group known as the Hash House Harriers is based on the combination of beer and running, and they admit that they are a drinking club with a running problem.  Our neighbor, Philadelphia, has a great group of runners known as the Fishtown Beer Runners, who hold weekly runs which end at the selected pub of the week.  I think the combination of running and beer is here to stay, and I couldn’t be happier.


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