Beer. One of the most beautiful and delicious culinary inventions to ever fall from the heavens and into our gullets. It is the great equalizer of humankind. Conflicts have been resolved, relationships have been kindled and great, scholarly musings have been made over a few pints. It is enjoyed and celebrated by almost every walk of life the world over.
Everyone from President Obama to Uncle Bob at the Thanksgiving football game knows how to enjoy a good beer. Even so, something so good must come at a price. About 10 bucks for a six pack of some decent craft brew adds up pretty quick when you like beer as much as I do. So, I figured, what the hell? I can just make my own!
Brewing beer, which started as a way of making water safe for actual human consumption-instead of killing you-has now turned into an easily accessible hobby. With nothing more than a mailing address, 50 bucks and the patience of a saint, the craft of brewing beer is something even the average Joe can enjoy. It's actually more like 1.2 million average Joes and Janes, according to the American Homebrew Association.
Now, it seems that the general consensus amongst the beer making community is that the process of brewing is a balanced mix of art and science. With the art aspect, you have to know what does and does not taste like complete garbage when put into a beer. Scientifically, you have to know the chemistry behind not making beer taste like complete garbage. Homebrewing allows Joe to explore both aspects of the process. If Joe wants to get creative and add his own spin to a standard recipe for a blonde ale, why not?
Beer is comprised of four main ingredients: malt, water, yeast and hops. Malt provides the main source of sugar and is usually made from grains like barley, wheat, rye or oats-or sorghum for the gluten free peeps. Yeast is what eats the sugar from the malt and produces alcohol and Co2. Hops are the seasoning of beer. They add bitterness to offset the sweetness of the brew, and are sometimes used to impart other flavors and aromas. Arguably the most important ingredient is water, you know, the stuff Fido drinks out of your toilet.
That 50 bucks I mentioned earlier can be used to buy a one gallon starter kit from Northern Brewer, which is what I did. The kit comes stocked with a recipe, ingredients and equipment all ready to go out of the box. All I needed to supply on my end were a few dozen empty and CLEAN, pry-top beer bottles-which I was happy to procure-and a 2 gallon kettle. Now comes the fun part.
After sanitizing everything better than I have probably ever done to my own bathroom, it was time to get started. Word to the wise, though, don't skip this step. When you think it is clean, clean it some more. If you're going to sanitize the equipment in your sink, than sanitize your sink first. That pan you used to fry eggs yesterday may-in some miraculous way-be the secret to making the perfect beer, but now isn't the time to try it out.
When the cleaning was done, I went to work brewing the sweet, godly elixir us mortals call beer. First step, heat up the water and steep the grains like tea. Add malt extract if the recipe calls for it and then bring it to a boil. Once the water comes to a boil-which takes about as long as the IRS takes to do anything-the hops are incorporated and boiled long enough to extract all of their tasty life essence. What I was left with after this was a sweet, yet bitter, liquid called wort.
After the wort was finished boiling, I moved on to the cool-down step. If I don't get the wort cooled down fast enough, there is a good chance of contaminating the whole batch. This is because of all the microbial junk in the air and could lead to a beer that tastes like rotten bread and soap. Not a good combo.
Armed with a tiny sink and a few ice cube trays, I began the uphill battle of cooling down a gallon of boiling liquid. It quickly became clear that I was going to need a bigger boat. Out of sheer desperation I began throwing bags of frozen vegetables and ice packs into the sink after my ice instantaneously melted.
Once the wort had cooled down to room temperature and I had a sink full of thawed out vegetables and ice packs, it was time to transfer it to a fermenter. The kit comes with a carboy (glass jug) and siphon for this. And yes. I did have quick jug jam session first, which I highly recommend. It's a good way to channel your inner hillbilly moonshiner.
Next, I pitched (added) the yeast and sealed it up with an airlock. The airlock lets gases from the fermentation process out, without letting oxygen in. Too much trapped gas makes it go boom, and too much oxygen can make it taste like New Jersey smells-kinda like being trapped between Chris Christie's asscheeks on a hot day.
Finally, I locked it up in a dungeon and left it alone for three of the longest weeks of my life. This initial fermentation produces beer, but it's kind of sad and flat-like Kansas. That's when I bottled it with a little sugar for the remaining yeast to eat, and let it sit for another two weeks. The co2 produced in the bottles over these final two weeks is what gave the beer it's well-known fizziness.
So, what were the final results? Meh. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it. Kind of like Tim Burton's latest string of movies. It looked like Tim Burton, sounded like Tim Burton, but, all-in-all, was just a lesser version of Tim Burton.
Despite all that, was it a complete waste of time? Hell no. What kind of beer guy would I be if didn't enjoy making my own beer? Who cares if it didn't come out exactly right? You just take the L, clean the soggy bags of vegetables out of your sink and try again.