New Adventures in Homebrewing, or Lessons in How to Waste a Lifetime?

September 10, 2009

in Beery Scribblings

Here’s a funny quote that I have occasionally seen on T-shirts and posters and that recently came to mind again: “Give a man a beer, and he wastes an hour, but teach a man how to brew a beer, and he wastes a lifetime.”

Well, I tried brewing my own beer once, about 15 years ago. And although I surely wasted more than a few hours (and lots of greenbacks) in the attempt, I never learned enough to waste a lifetime. Not on beer-making, at least.

Looking back now on this experience, I’m not sure why I even tried. The main reason, I suppose, was that I got caught up in the microbrews craze that was beginning to sweep the country in the mid to late 1980s. As soon as I discovered that there was more to beer-drinking than winning the “great taste/less filling” debate, I thirstily sought out as many different species as I could find. I read high-brow brew magazines like Zymurgy and Beer Advocate, and lucked into a few bartenders and shopkeepers willing to introduce me to the rich array of commercially available styles and flavors — silky porters and stouts, hoppy ales and bitters, sweet lagers, sharp pilsners, and the like.

Another reason for my interest was that I had a friend and neighbor who had brewed a batch or two and made it look so easy. In fact, to hear him talk, as we swizzled his delicious spiced “Winter Warmers,” it all seemed so simple: Heat some water, add sugar and a little yeast, pour it all into some containers, set them aside for a few weeks, and, ta-dah! — beer as good as (and perhaps, if you do it right, even cheaper than) the craft brands I was buying.

So I decided to try my hand at do-it-yourself beer-making. I bought everything I supposedly needed — a copy of homebrewing pioneer Charlie Papazian’s quirky how-to book, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing; a couple of appealing recipes for my favorite styles; and an odd assortment of ingredients and equipment, like malt extract, dried yeast, a hydrometer, a glass carboy, chlorine bleach, a funnel, a length of rubber hose (what was I making?) — and then I went to work.

My goal was to produce a few batches of simple brews (British-style pale and brown ales, mostly) over the course of a year, or about enough to last a month or two, and to make some seasonals to give to relatives and friends as Christmas and birthday gifts. That way I would always have fresh beer on hand, to drink or share, and I could supplement my supplies with store-boughts as needed (or as my checkbook allowed).

Sounds simple enough, right? At first, it was. And for a brief period, I was an avid participant, having loads of sudsy fun. But after awhile, I gave it up. I have “tuns” of excuses for ending my brief career as a homebrewer — we were starting a family, there wasn’t enough time in the day, we didn’t have enough room in the house, my house guests didn’t like the smell, I didn’t have the right ingredients or equipment, etc. But that’s all they are, excuses.

Truth is, I boxed up my books and equipment and stowed them in the basement for one reason: I stunk. Despite getting help from some well-meaning friends, and from my wife, who is a darn good cook, I couldn’t produce a bottle of anything that I was brave enough to serve to others, or that was even remotely drinkable at my own table. As I quickly discovered, once I ventured beyond the basic (and very boring) starter recipes, homebrewing is an exact science, not an art form. It’s like the difference between baking a loaf of bread and making an omelette. There’s a chemical equation at the heart of every seemingly simple list of beer ingredients, and I was never very good at chemistry.

So in the end, after a number of failed batches, I realized that, to obtain good quality beer, it was easier (and cheaper) to buy it from a store.

Now, I’m telling you all this because I recently attended an event that might cause me to change my mind. A week or so ago, I was cordially invited to the first homebrew tasting at The Wine Source. As Scribbleskiff readers know, I have been to many tastings at TWS. But unlike their previous events, this time the store provided only the nibbles — the attendees were the ones who supplied the beer. And, oh my, what a supply!

This inaugural event, organized by Jed, my new-brew adviser, included more than a dozen beers, divided into three categories: light, medium, and heavyweight. Not surprising, since the tasting was more or less a talent show, and the half-dozen or so participants were anything but bashful about their brood of brews, most of what was opened fell into the latter category.

And the beers sampled (well, consumed, really, since every bottle was empty at the event’s end) covered a surprisingly wide range of styles, including a ginger beer, a hefeweizen, two barleywines, a saison, a lambic, an IPA, a Belgian/IPA hybrid, a few porters, and several kinds of stout. Even more impressive were the creative variations on the themes — the lambic was made with Chardonnay grapes rather than berries, for instance, while the porters and stouts featured a mishmash of ingredients, everything from chocolate and cherries, to coffee beans, chipotle peppers, and raw (post-Halloween) pumpkin. A far cry from the “Continental Dark,” a lifeless, cardboardy concoction that was my first-brewed beer in 1994.

I know what you’re thinking — who cares about their stylistic variety and complex pedigree, how did they taste? Simply put — scrumptious. Each of the evening’s offerings was as different from the other as could be, giving new meaning to the notion of “craft” beer, yet all were equally tasty and outstanding . Frankly, what these so-called amateurs produced in their kitchens rivaled many of the commercially brewed beers lining the store’s shelves.

So, what’s changed over the last decade and a half? A lot, apparently. What’s available now, in terms of ingredients and equipment, as well as readily accessible information and know-how, seems to have transformed homebrewing from a relatively solo activity to an exciting communal experience.

I’d venture to guess that the birth of the Internet has contributed the most to the pace of change. At the time I was hanging up my brewmaster’s apron, circa 1996, Al Gore and crew were still weaving the World Wide Web. But even if I had wanted to use the technology for my purposes, what was available then was a pittance compared to what’s out there today. Over the past 10 years or more, the Web has produced a multitude of highly informed and useful sites (I Googled “homebrew beer” and got 1.5 million hits!), offering everything from recipes, supplies, tips, and FAQs, to how-to advice, message boards, and social networking groups. Having expert help at your fingertips — like being able to email, or even Twitter, a fellow brewer when you think you may have “overboiled” the wort (I did this) and get instant advice about what to do next — could mean the difference between salvaging some part of a 5-gallon brew or dumping $40 worth of ingredients (and countless hours of time and effort) down the drain — I did that, too.

There are also many new and improved products available these days. For instance, when I was starting out, the malt — the main flavor ingredient in most beer — was only sold as a dry powder or as a thick, syrupy extract in a 3.5 lb can, which was problematic for a number of reasons — not the least of which was, what do you do with the sticky excess when the recipe calls for less? Nowadays, in addition to the liquid extract variety (some of which comes in resealable containers), malt may be purchased dried, flaked, or even whole grain. This allows for greater flexibility and creativity, as I was told by several participants. There are also many new devices and products to make cleaning and sanitizing (a very palpable source of anxiety for me) much, much easier.

Another especially helpful innovation is YouTube. There are literally hundreds of videos available, through outfits like Expert Village, offering clear, concise and watchable instructions for navigating the entire brewing process, from start to finish. For visual learners like me, this is a godsend. No longer would I need to rely on my interpretations of Papazian’s often indefinite instructions (and cloying “relax, don’t worry” condescension). Rather, if I could observe someone else brewing the same beer, step by step, and compare what I was doing (or, truthfully, not doing) against what a pro was doing, I really wouldn’t need to worry.

Perhaps the most important change is the growth in popularity of homebrewing itself and the rise of groups and clubs. The camaraderie that developed, almost spontaneously, among the evening’s attendees was both touching and telling. As each participant opened and shared his or her wares, the tasters began asking questions, some technically oriented (like, “What hops did you use?” or “How did you keep it cold enough?”) and others slightly more irreverent (like, “Are you still using an extract?”). Conversation flowed naturally from these informal probing-jibing sessions in between rounds, spawning helpful comments, such as suggestions for which beer went best with the food provided, and inspiring hilarious confessions — like the person who, after having one too many homebrews, mistakenly downed a half-filled bottle of yeast reserves (and apparently enjoyed it).

As with any shared experience, companionship and commonality beget a feeling of conviviality that can prove productive and memorable. As I mentioned, I did have one or two friends who helped me out from time to time, but mostly my “brew-my-own” adventures occurred on my own (and often, as it felt, in the dark). I imagine that, had I had such an attentive and generous group at my disposal, I might still be homebrewing to this day.

As it stands, I wish I could say I had a reawakening of affection for an old hobby that evening, that I came home full of inspiration, ready to dust off the carboy and start boiling some wort again. Alas, I still don’t think I could cut it as a homebrewer — I certainly don’t possess the spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship (or the fridge and freezer space) it would take to make beers of this caliber. No, what I have left, after 15 years, are a lot of tired, old excuses.

Instead, I’m content to be a recipient of all that energy and creativity. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to waste a lifetime, one or two hours at a time.

As always, let us know what you think. Have you ever tried brewing your own beer? Or would you rather be the beneficiary of someone else’s (positive) homebrewing experience?  Let us know by leaving a comment below.

And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (find it here), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.

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