Misadventures In Home Brewing Part 2
Home brewing is a lot like CPR. The process is simple and its mechanics are easy to understand, but in the real world there’s a good chance the novice will end up staring down at something quite lifeless. This is why we call for a professional when the old man collapses at a restaurant and we set low expectations for our first try at homemade amber ale.
If you read part one of my adventures in home brewing you may remember that I decided to kick things off with a prepackaged kit. It is the brewing equivalent of the legless CPR dummy, but without the removable lips and the creepy blank stare.
I will spare you a description of the final product until the end of this article, but I hardly think I need to foreshadow the outcome. It’s not good.
To kick things off, the directions require that I sanitize anything within a 100-foot radius of the brewing beer. At least, that’s how it seems. Brewing apparently calls for operating room-like cleanliness, to the point that I almost feel I need to strip down and delouse myself in our kitchen.
For a moment, I consider skipping all the sanitizing nonsense. I mean, everything gets boiled, and isn’t that’s how you purify drinking water? Surely the pioneers never bothered sanitizing. Then I remind myself that I will probably be the lone consumer of the final product, at which point self-preservation gets the best of me.
At its core, brewing is pretty basic. You boil a bunch stuff you would never eat in real life (malt and hops) in a big pot. After it cools, toss in a bunch of hungry microorganisms (yeast), which eat the mixture and excrete alcohol (mmm, yeast excrement).
Really, what could go wrong? As it turns out, plenty; starting with the solid block of malt that must be shattered into tiny fragments with a mallet. Actually, this part is fun. I send hundreds of glass-like shards hurtling through my kitchen. In my destructive glee, it takes awhile to notice that they hurt when they hit bare skin. They also affix themselves to the wall and my clothing like rubber cement wherever they happen to land.
The purpose of all this malt busting is to dissolve it faster into the big boiling pot on my stove. This hot malt mixture falls short of something I would call appetizing. It’s fascinating to watch the dancing bubbles and think, I would never eat this, but I can’t wait to drink it after it sits around for a few weeks!
It doesn’t help matters that this concoction is called the ‘wort’. It’s almost like the people drawing up the first brewing instructions took a step back from their cauldron and said, “Yeah, so unfortunately we’ve got to give this nasty mess a name. What do you think: Crap, Sludge, Sewage? How about Wort?”
At this point my wife comes in to offer her support. “What the hell is that smell?” I believe are her exact words. I don’t know if it’s relevant, but she can small things four miles away, and if it doesn’t smell like flowers or fresh fruit, she doesn’t like it. But even I have to admit it’s not a pleasant odor.
Before long, it’s time for the cubitainer. Allow me to describe the cubitainer: it’s a cube-shaped container. Really, I can’t expound much further – that’s all it is. Anyway, as I prepare to transfer the cooled wort into the cubitainer, I notice that the funnel and its tube are the exact same diameter. That is to say, the funnel does not fit snugly into the tube. And that is bad. I devolve into something like a cro-magnon man and fruitlessly try to force the funnel tip into the tube.
Enter my one moment of ingenuity. With a roll of masking tape, I join my funnel/tube assembly, and then affix it to our island for hands-free filling. The resultant funnel system is ugly and ridiculous, but it works. It’s sad that this is my moment of pride, but it’s all I’ve got.
With the wort secure in the cubitainer, I warm up some water to prep the yeast. I don’t know what real yeast looks like under the microscope, but I picture it as a brigade of cartoon characters, much like the old Saturday morning cartoons that sang songs to explain lofty ideas like legislation and verb conjugation. I can picture those little yeast fellas now – dancing around with big toothy smiles and farting out alcohol.
As I empty my packet of yeast into a shallow bowl of water, it occurs to me that these are living organisms. It’s a challenge to think of anything that could survive the harsh conditions this yeast experienced in my garage. Locust eggs, maybe? Suddenly my saucer starts to look less like a pool of tiny white particles and more like poorly drawn old men doing the dead man’s float. The poor bastards. But I have few alternatives at this point; poor bastards or not, into the cubitainer they must go.
Forgotten up to this point is the fact that I need to let this mixture ferment in a safe location for several weeks. I ponder storage options. My wife immediately suggests one uncomfortable place I can put it – I’ll let you use your imagination.
I opt to store it on the floor in the back of our pantry, hidden well enough to be ignored, but not so out-of-the-way that I will forget about it until our next move. For added protection I place it in an empty diaper box lined with paper towels, which prompts some uncomfortable explanations with visiting relatives.
For four weeks my only jobs are to pretend I know what I am doing and to add some dextrose and gelatin to the mass of liquid I fully expect to leak all over the pantry. I thought this would be a period of blissful ignorance, but the little I actually know about home brewing puts me only slightly beyond ignorant and completely without any bliss.
The horrible beauty of home brewing is that it gives you several weeks to reflect on everything you did wrong and wonder if it will ultimately ruin your day sometime next month. It’s not like baking a cake. I don’t care how bad a baker you are, you won’t go to bed that night and wonder if you just wrecked a birthday party that’s three weeks away.
Eventually it is time bottle. I have been dreading this part of the process. Yes, it is moment when beer starts to look the part, but it also means more sanitizing. In my mind the bottles are never fully cleaned or thoroughly rinsed. But believe it or not, other than a few spills and some complementary swearing, bottling proceeds without incident and I soon have an actual six-pack of home brewed beer in my fridge.
My first (and only) sip of home brew gets spit right into the sink. I catch a whiff of something that resembles beer, but after it touches my lips all I can think of is swamp water and feet. I don’t know if it’s possible for a liquid to contain negative carbonation, but that’s what it feels like. Maybe the bubbles retreat to the bottom of the glass to huddle together and cry. It’s what I feel like doing.
I try to imagine comments from an experienced beer taster. “An earthy flavor accompanied by tannins of aluminum phosphate and nitrogen, and a bleach-like overtone that hints of impending death.”
Actually, it just would be: “This tastes like piss.”
I guess I must look upon this as a learning experience. I am encouraged by Thomas Edison’s quip about how he didn’t fail, but instead learned 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb. Still, even an optimist like Edison couldn’t choke down this home brew.
I vow to try again. Deep breaths. Deep breaths.