We were up to our elbows in sticky plum juice on a Saturday morning before most people get out of bed. After crushing 25 pounds of greengage plums by hand, we surveyed the damage: fruit shrapnel everywhere, spices in tiny beer glasses like boozy science experiments, and a giant cauldron boiling on the stove.
We were making a collaboration beer with the Brewers Collective and Edible Long Island.
Our brew day began with a drive to Briermere Farms in Riverhead to pick up the plums. Armed with crates of fruit, we arrived at the brewery where a few members of “The Collective” were getting things rolling. If you’ve never brewed a beer before, know that it takes the better part of a day. Not to mention you’ll spend about a month tending to it. But we’ll get to all that later. For now, we have plums, spices and grain and we’re almost ready to make a beer.
“Visions of sugarplums danced in their heads” was the phrase that kept dancing in our heads when discussing the recipe. Since beer does take time to ferment and develop, you have to think ahead. That’s why we were planning for a holiday brew before Halloween decorations were up. Unfortunately for those who don’t like to follow recipes—like us—brewing is an exact science, similar to baking. We ultimately decided a rich beer with hints of sweet cinnamon and warm spices was the goal.
Since we were using the same equipment the collective uses at a Taste of Long Island in Farmingdale, we were working with a smaller, slightly rogue setup. The space is a commercial kitchen/brewery incubator hybrid where three barrels of beer can be brewed right on the industrial stove top.
The first step is mashing the grain, which usually reminds us of making a giant pot of oatmeal. Your grain bill—a fancy way of addressing the different grains in a recipe—is added to water and left to steep for around an hour. Our bill included grain typical to stouts as well as some of the plums. Though brewing is labor intensive, there’s also a fair amount of downtime, so pick your brew buddies wisely.
Once the mash is done, it’s time to separate the liquid from the grain. The Brewers Collective donates their spent grain to Dan Holmes, co-founder of Restoration Farm in Old Bethpage. Each batch of beer produces about 250 pounds of leftover grain, so it’s a lengthy and somewhat grueling process to transfer the piping hot mash from the kettle to storage pails. It’s for a good cause, though; Holmes uses the grain to feed his livestock and says they love it.
Grain gone, you have your liquid, aka wort. Put it in a clean pot and the fun begins. Or, more accurately, that’s when the flavoring begins and timing is important. Add the hops too early in the boil, and you get a bitter flavor. Add them toward the end, and you enhance aroma. Boil length varies based on beer style; ours was 90 minutes with frequent additions of cinnamon sticks, fresh and powdered ginger, Aleppo and Urfa peppers and, of course, hops and more plums.
Pulling into the home stretch, all that’s left to do is transfer the wort to its fermenter and clean up. First though, we pulled off a small sample for everyone to try. Before beer has time to ferment, it is extremely sweet, because the yeast has not yet eaten any of the sugar. However, you can often get an idea of what the finished product will taste like. Our wort was roasted, sweet and slightly spicy. Not to mention the spent grain, littered with spiced plums, smelled good enough to eat, though none of us was quite brave enough to try.
All said and done, brewing took about eight hours. Typically after a few weeks, the beer is moved to another vessel to clarify and carbonate, but the Brewers Collective does not filter their beer. The last step is always kegging, or putting the beer into bottles or a cask. We ended the brew day much like we started—covered in plum but with a new sense of accomplishment and excitement for the finished product.
VOTE Edible readers are helping to name the beer. Vote here and enter to win tickets to the release party on Nov. 29.