Simple Ideas

Home Brew, Round Two

Lifestyle & Culture | May 17, 2012

This is my second attempt at producing alcohol at home. As is often the case with me, there was a brief gap between attempts. Roughly four decades in this case, give or take a few weeks.

Even with that gap, some of the lessons learned are still with me as if it were yesterday. Perhaps that is why people are paid more as they age. So many lessons that those of us in our dotage can apply to problem solving. So valuable are we.

So allow me to recount that first effort back in the early 70’s. I was living with my grandfather at the time and decided that home brewing wine would be a good idea. I don’t recall the antecedent to this event, i.e. why I thought it would be a good idea. It just appeared on a list of actionable good ideas at a time when I was prone to act on such ideas.

Technically, I did not clear this idea with my grandfather. In fact he was for the most part unaware that I had taken Kool-Ade mixed it with yeast and water and put it in a jug with cheese cloth on the top and let it ferment in the shade in the corner of a room behind, I don’t know, some shade giving object like an easy chair.

Never having fermented before, little did I know this mess would um “boil over” onto the carpet and stink up the room. When confronted with this situation I responded with a partial truth, to wit “It was a science project.” In fact it was a science based project that failed with negative consequences to my grandfather.

I should also mention, peripherally of course, that at that time in US history, the home production of alcohol for consumption was, at least technically, prohibited on a national basis. Combining this with my propensity for accumulating traffic tickets and I can take a much clearer look at my life. I should have spent a lot more time incarcerated over the years. In fact, I have no idea how I’m allowed to roam the streets on my own recognizance.

Be that as it may, flash forward to the current day. It is now 2012. We are past that day in 1978 wherein one James Earl Carter did what may have been the only beneficial act of his Presidency. Yes good people, that was the day he signed H.R. 1334 into law and thereby made home brewing possible. I, being unaware of this fact before researching this article, have now elevated said Politician from the rank of totally useless to the rank of not totally useless after all. Stay tuned on that one.

Anyway, back to me. I’m now gearing up to make some Home Brew Beer. The antecedent for this project is my younger daughter asking me what I want for my birthday. I was going to say “yoga pants” as my current ones were shot. Except I found a pair that she bought me the year before and that I hadn’t worn for a year while I was still engaged in wearing out the other pair. Bottom line I was stumped and blurted out the first fool thing that popped into my head. Which was “home brewing beer kit”.

That was the lead up to my opening the kit and getting started by….wait for it….yes…reading the instructions! This is yet another thing old age has conferred upon me. I occasionally read instructions now.

I had heard that brewing beer was kind of tough. And I think it is if you make the wort from scratch. But the kit I received already had the wort in liquid form. I was, I admit, disappointed. I wanted this to be hard! I had to think about that for a bit. Why did I want it to be hard? Sense of accomplishment? The idea that difficulty equates to value? Well I knew that wasn’t true from cooking. There are a number of simple meals I make that come out just as well as complicated ones.

Then I looked at the box the kit came in and saw that they were advertising this by showing a proud beer maker proclaiming “I made this beer!”. Ah there is was. Of course it had to be simple. Lookit, the people that are making this beer are not PHD’s in chemistry. They are, uh, basically, uh, drunks. They can’t put on the box “so easy a drunk can make it!” but that is the target audience.

So relative to cooking a complex meal, this beer making is not going to be taxing. Ok, I can deal with that. So flashing back on my first home brew experience, I had to answer one basic question. Where would I have this ferment? Not on a carpet, no. Not on a hardwood floor, also bad…where…ah bingo! The guest shower! Tile floor, dark area out of sunlight. Money.

I actually went out and talked to people too. The owner of a local pub had done some brewing and was surprised that I’d make such a small quantity as “it takes just as much to sterilize a small batch as a large batch.” True, but beer only last so long and 2 gallons is a lot for me. The idea is that most beer makers have things called “friends” who come over when the beer is ready and help drink it before it goes bad. I don’t have much help in that regard, so in my case even if the beer comes out drinkable, I’m more than likely going to be passing it out to homeless people (I know, there is probably federal regulation against this too-I'm so going to end up doing jail time for this) or flushing it down the drain.

I also stopped by a local home brew shop. They had opened within the last week or so and the guy behind the counter, auspiciously named George, gave me a few tips on how this hobby might evolve. But his bottom line was “for the first batch, just make it per the instructions.” Which is almost exactly what I did.

There were a few problems, as one would expect. When I went to sterilize the keg, I found it leaking at the tap. That was a rubber washer thingie that I put on the inside vice the outside of the keg. Apparently, that attention to detail makes a difference. I righted that wrong and was done with the keg. I then had to sterilize a can opener, cup and spoon. You don’t want any bad bugs in the beer as you will get ”infected beer”. That is not good. So everything get’s the treatment. Here was where one error appeared. I used a metal spoon. I would then use the spoon in a pot that was treated such that you weren’t supposed to use metal spoons. Another lesson learned.

In fact, I was making the American Lager for my first batch. I don’t like lager very much, so I was using this as a trainer. The next batch will be an ale and I generally like those better. So even if I bugger this up, well, it’s part of the learning process.

The actual making of the beer was somewhere between frying an egg and warming up soup in terms of difficulty. Put water in a pot, heat it, add the booster (sugar basically) heat the sugar so it doesn’t clump. Stir in the liquid wort. Pour that into the keg. Add yeast, shake, add more water and you are done. Only thing to watch for is don’t infect the beer and remember to have water in the keg (it’s plastic and the hot wort would melt it.)

I did leave some wort in the can, so I offset that by adding a wee bit of maple syrup thinking that would maybe up the alcohol content, also thinking that higher alcohol content might work to kill off the infected beer issue, perhaps that is only wishful thinking, but there is possibly some science behind it too.

So there you have it. The beer has to sit in the keg in roughly room temperature conditions for at least 7 days without opening the lid. With me going on the road to teach, this is a hobby that could be a good lifestyle fit if nothing else. Cook up a batch before I hit the road, come back home and have either a keg of tasty beer…or a bathroom science project.

It’s day one now and so far, the beer has not escaped from the keg!


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