Guest Blogger: UnKegging the Truth

While my boyfriend might be the erstwhile Smoothie King, his brother Steve has long had a sudsier love (other than Jenna, obvs, and baby Toniatti!). Steve knows more about beer than almost anyone I know, and for a short while I worked in a pub that routinely ran "Beer School" just to educate people on beer essentials. Since the pub required me to have a working knowledge of beer/condescension for Heinekin Light, I admit I probably know more about beer than the average 23-year-old none-drinking girl, and what I discovered, to my surprise, is that beer is very easy to make yourself. In fact, last year, my college dorm went on a field trip to the Sam Adams brewery in Boston and got a tour from founder and all-around awesome person Jim Koch (being an alum of our house). He walked us through the basics of brewing, and then admitted it was so easy he regularly whipped up batches with his elementary-school-aged sons ("for show and tell," he said).

Although I doubt Steve will be teaching his unborn kid how to brew any time soon (although he is now trying to determine, based on how hard the baby kicks, his/her soccer potential), he has kindly acquiesed to my many requests and written a guest blogging column, homebrew-style. And with that, I'll leave it to Steve!

I like to think that I have a deep, profound respect for beer. I can wax poetic about a Hefeweizen in July and get downright rhapsodical about a Maarzen lager in October. I’ll store Belgian Dubbels and Triples in the cellar and chill a Stout and a Wheat Ale in the fridge. I try to maintain a decent variety because, like dinner, who knows what you’ll be in the mood for that night?

I love how beer can be as diverse as its cultural origin, with each region of the world developing a style of brew reflective of its people and climate. I love tracing a beer’s historical evolution, seeing an English Pale Ale morph into an India Pale Ale after being loaded with hops to preserve the brew for a long, colonial sea journey. And I love beer’s ubiquitous role in history, with the local alehouse or tavern providing the setting for the exchange of new political views and ideas, and the beverage, presumably, providing the liquid courage to instigate these radical changes.

Beer has been the glue of civilization for thousands of years. Or, if you subscribe to certain paleontologists, an important reason for civilization, when nomadic hunters developed agriculture as a means to generate a stable supply of wheat and grain for fermentation. As societies, cities, and towns emerged, the local brewery was right next door to the local bakery and butcher shop. Beer became as important to a community’s identity and daily life as any other product. Produce locally, distribute locally, consume fresh. That was the way beer, and all food for that matter, was and still should be.

So what better way to channel your primordial brewer and go local than to brew up a batch yourself?

Brewing at its most basic level is simple. Beer has four main ingredients: water, grain, hops, and yeast. The first ingredient is readily available. With the help of your local homebrew store or a myriad of websites, you can obtain the other three with relative ease. What makes each type of beer unique is how much of and what types of grain, hops, and yeast you decide to use, plus any creative adjunct ingredients you toss in. Water, making up 95% of beer, does play an important role in the end result, and commercial breweries will pay close attention to the mineral content and taste of their water. However, for our purposes, if you have a kitchen sink and are OK with drinking out of the tap, brew away.

The brewing process itself is not that different from cooking up any other type of food. Once you have all your ingredients ready, you’ll spend an hour or so boiling them on your kitchen stove, adding different ingredients at different times, and finally cooling it down and sealing it up for a couple weeks to facilitate fermentation (though few other foods become alcoholic). However, there are some specialized pieces of equipment required. To get your personal brewery up and running, you’ll need to invest in some food-grade plastic buckets, plastic pipes and tubing, bottle cappers, etc. I don’t want to go into too much detail on specifics, as people debate the virtues of various pieces of equipment with near-religious fervor and do so freely on other blogs and websites. A comprehensive, economical way for first-timers to get all the basic requirements they’ll need is to go with a kit. I don’t mean Mr. Beer, which is basically “just add water” ale, though I’ve actually heard it’s not that bad. But it’s not real brewing. A kit will give you everything you’ll need to brew from scratch for about $120, and after several batches, it will pay for itself in liquor store savings. Incidentally, when I first started homebrewing, I foolishly bought each piece of equipment separately, purchasing a new carboy fermenter and wort chiller with each batch. I don’t regret it; chalk it up to beginner’s enthusiasm. Besides, that $18 bottle of beer tasted so much better (to me).

While it’s not a complicated process, homebrewing can be a labor of love. It can take up several hours of multiple weekends and requires weeks of patience to find out if your project was ultimately a success. You should plan on spending one afternoon preparing and boiling your batch, and, after about a week of fermenting, another afternoon bottling your beer. That’s why one important ingredient in the brewing process is having like-minded enthusiasts to help. I have a few homebrewing friends from college who help with the brewing and bottling, and more importantly, help make room in the fridge by consuming earlier batches.

As soon as your brew kit arrives, you’re ready to go. The beauty of homebrewing is your freedom to create your own unique beer, personalized specifically for your tastes. There are countless books and websites that can provide you with recipes, all you need to decide is what to add. Like peaches? You can make peach beer. Like chocolate? Go ahead, add chocolate. Like hot peppers, carrots, oysters, pumpkins, or bananas? I probably wouldn’t add them all together in one batch, but there are certainly recipes for each of those.

Last November, I decided to make an apple ale. It seemed like a good fall beer, something I had never done before, and my wife had been asking me to brew a batch with apples for a while. Having a spouse who tolerates homebrewing is a very fortunate thing, let alone one who makes special requests. It was the least I could do. The beer turned out pretty well, semi-sweet and refreshing with a slightly sour apple bite. A keeper in my opinion.

2 3.3lb Cans of Light Malt Extract
Safale S-04 Dry Ale Yeast
0.5lb Roasted Barley
Hops: 1oz. Hallertau, 0.5oz Saaz, and 1oz Liberty
4 large cans of frozen concentrate apple juice (no extra sugar added)
1 tsp of Irish Moss
¾ cup priming sugar (you can use confectionary sugar)
Makes 5 gallons (standard homebrew batch. 48 bottles – this is also why it’s good to have homebrewing, or at least beer-drinking, friends)

Start by heating 2.5 gallons of water to approx. 180 F. Steep the roasted malt in a cooking-specific mesh bag** for 30 minutes (this will contribute to the beer’s color and texture). Remove the bag and bring water to a boil. Stir in both cans of malt extract. Be sure to stir constantly for 5 minutes after adding until extract dissolves (the extract is like molasses and will burn to the bottom of the pot without stirring).

The hops add flavor to the beer and their bitterness balances out the malt’s sweetness. They come in several varieties, with each having its own distinct flavor and different kinds of hops working better with certain styles of beer. The hops come processed in several forms, but I prefer hop pellets (they look like rabbit food). I find they are easiest to work with. Once you have brought the wort (the actual name for the sugar water you are boiling) to a boil, you will add different types/amounts of hops at different times during the hour long boil. I put the hop pellets in little cheese bag containers, which look like socks, and just toss them in.

60 minutes (left in boil) add 1oz. Hallertau
5 minutes (left in boil) add 0.5oz. Saaz

At 15 mins left in the boil, add 1 tsp of Irish Moss. This will add clarity to your beer by helping unwanted particles settle to the bottom of your fermenter**.

After 60 mins, remove the wort from the stove and rapidly cool the beer. The easiest way to do this is fill a sink with ice and put the pot on top. It’s important to chill the wort quickly, as hot, freestanding wort will attract atmospheric bacteria which could funk your beer. Plus, the temperature needs to be 70 F - 80 F before adding your yeast.

Pour your chilled wort into your pre-sterilzed*** primary fermentation bucket**. Add another 2.5 gallons of cold water (I put tap water right into my boiling pot I just used to keep things sterile). Add your yeast, add 1oz. of Liberty hops to dry hop (in that sock/cheese bag), and add 4 cans of apple concentrate. Seal it up with the CO2-releasing lid** and let sit for about 5 days.

After primary fermentation, you’ll use your siphon, transfer bucket, and bottling spout to transfer the beer to the sterilized bottles for final conditioning. Boil 2 cups of water, add ¾ cups of priming sugar until it dissolves, and add sugar water to the transfer bucket before bottling. Boil bottle caps to sterilize before capping.

Bottle-condition the beer for two weeks. After conditioning, put several beers in the fridge, call friends, enjoy.

*most likely a copyright infringement, or at least already the name of an iPhone app, but Kendall made the fake ad and beer label
**likely included in your brewing kit
***Homebrewing is a very inexact, free-range process, except for one important point. Anything that touches your wort after the boil must be almost operating room sterile. Nothing is more frustrating the buying all ingredients and going through the whole brewing process, only to find out 2-3 weeks later that unwanted bacteria had funked out your beer because your bucket or bottles weren’t clean. I usually fill my fermenting bucket all the way with cold water, dump in all other equipment, and add a few glugs of bleach. About three tbsp’s should do it. Rinse everything off and you should be good to go. It’s safe – I haven’t gone blind from the bleach. If you prefer, you can get other kinds of cleaners at homebrew shops or websites.

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